As a boy growing up in the 1950s, I looked forward every year to the new cars and how different they would be from last year’s models. Obviously, I am not doing that in 2019, because the combination of what the frame of the car can deliver aerodynamically interacts with software and advanced materials to deliver the performance I want to buy. So I don’t see great external changes from one year to the next any more.
On the military side, I wrote a piece for Breaking Defense in 2012 about how the coming of the V-22 Osprey was about to totally change amphibious operations. But because it was all about an amphibious exercise, folks were looking at the beach and waiting to see the assault forces come across the horizon.
The problem was that the assault, led by Ospreys, had leapfrogged the beach, headed over our heads and had reached deep inland. I wrote: “Instead of assaulting the beach, the forces aboard the sea base are maneuvering within and over the battlespace inserting, moving and withdrawing forces. This is a far cry from just looking at photos of the landing ships and assault vehicles.”
A similar challenge is now being posed by the coming to airshows of the first fifth generation airplanes such as the F-35. The F-35 is a harbinger of fundamental change in terms of the concepts of operations for airpower, in which a multi-domain aircraft pilot is able to make decisions with the help of his onboard computers and with shared data far out at the tactical edge. A great deal of what makes the plane effective is radio waves, radar and software, not hardware. While the F-35 is hardly the end of history with regard to air combat, it is a page turner.
When I visited Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in April, my host was Lt. Col. Adam Levine, the Warlords commanding officer. Levine has been flying the F-35 for more than seven years and has witnessed first-hand how software from block 1A through 3F has transformed the plane. Levine underscored that the evolution onboard the Hornets flown by the Marines can’t really be compared to flying the early variants of the F-35 because the planes did not change as much through unseen changes such as the generational differences now evident with the 3F software. According to Levine: “There is simply no comparison between a 3F F-35 and a legacy aircraft. They are in different worlds.”
He encouraged me to stay and see the F-35B flying with 3-F software which has unleashed new agility for the aircraft, the effects of which were clearly visible at the Beaufort Air Show. While the new maneuvers were compelling theater, he drove home the point that much of what makes the plane effective would be invisible to someone at an airshow: “But of course you cannot see or demonstrate at an air show what the real difference the F-35 delivers to the combat force.”
Levine highlighted the problem now in attending air shows and looking to understand more effectively the evolving nature of air combat systems. What is becoming ever more salient to the air combat force is their ability to operate together in an integrated manner and limit the effects of disrupters like electronic warfare or cyber threats. (Of course, the F-35 uses its own highly advanced EW and cyber capabilities, which are invisible to the naked eye.)
At the Fighter Conference held in Berlin last November the former head of the Royal Australian Air Force provided a good sense of what the challenge is in understanding the future of air combat and what to look at when watching a fighter jet fly.
“Our Navy has just started deploying our air warfare destroyers, but we have already demonstrated CEC interoperability with the US Navy. We will put CEC on our Wedgetails to be able to provide weapons quality tracks to our ships, hence enhancing significantly the range for the strike capability of our fleet. And as we go forward we will find ways to directly link our F-35s with the fleet as well. Our Navy and Army are now focused on fifth generation communications with their platforms as well, which is why having the F-35 in the force can drive change in the strategic direction in which you want to go. If you fly a legacy asset you cannot drive the kind of change the Australian Defence Force needs in the near- to mid-term.”
But how do you see this at an air show?
What is required now is that when visiting the chalets, pavilions or corrals of manufacturers building missiles, UAVs, or C2 systems you need to look not just at the cool capabilities the piece of equipment provides, but focus on how that capability can be used in combat as part of a larger force. This is a much more significant challenge for the visitor, but it is crucial to understanding the way ahead of the world’s air combat forces. In the meantime, enjoy the roar of the jets and whomp whomp whomp of the helicopters next week.