“The F-35 is flying, it is a real thing, and progress is real,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh recently said in Japan.
Several countries, including Russia and China, are working on fifth generation fighters, he noted. Even if the United States does not go to war with these countries, it will inevitably have to confront the military technology they sell to other countries.
Extending the service lives of fourth generation aircraft, and even supplanting the force structure with generation “4.5″ fighters, does not solve the problem caused by these new fighters.
“When a fifth-generation fighter meets a fourth-generation fighter—[the latter] dies,” said Welsh. “We can’t just dress up a fourth-generation fighter as a fifth-generation fighter; we need to get away from that conversation,” he said.
A recent discussion between the founder of the concept of the 5th generation aircraft and a key shaper of its reality occurred at Eglin AFB at the 33rd Fighter Wing earlier this month. Mike Wynne, when he was Air Force Secretary, worked with the Chief of Staff of the Air Force to put non-Air Force pilots into an F-22 to jump start Air Force thinking and to gain better joint force understanding the transition. Lt. Col. Berke, the commanding officer of the Marines’ F-35 training squadron at Eglin, was picked. He is the only pilot to have flown both fifth-generation aircraft, the F-22 and F-35.
Berke has an unusual background which allows him to bring a unique perspective to the airpower transition of fifth generation aircraft. He has more than 2,800 flight hours in the F/A-18, F-16, and F-22, and F-35. He has been a TOPGUN Instructor where he served as an F-16 Instructor pilot doing aggressor tactics. He has been an F-18 pilot. He served as a Forward Air Controller with the US Army in Iraq. And he was assigned to the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base as an Operational Test Pilot. Finally, he served as commander of the F-22 Division.
The Eglin meeting was the first time that the formulator of the fifth generation aircraft concept had met Berke. The discussion began with Wynne explaining his thinking about the necessity for Berke’s cross-transfer: “It boiled down to the fact that I believed the Air Force needed to better understand and explain that fifth-generation aircraft are not simply replacement aircraft for the fourth generation. I believed that bringing in pilots from other services and Air Forces might well jumpstart USAF thinking as well as spread the word to others.”
Berke then underscored that he had come to Nellis at a time when he Air Force was beginning to understand that the F-22 was not simply the next iteration of the Eagle and that they would have to focus more than they had on how the fifth generation would work with legacy aircraft to shape more effective combat capability overall.
“I got to Nellis at the time when the F-22 community was beginning to really understand the necessity to better integrate the F-22 within the overall air force. When I was there, the most significant tests we were doing were integration tests.”
Berke underscored that “a strike force of Raptors working with Hornets, or Eagles or Vipers are going to do better in an overall air combat effort than simply training to operate by themselves.”
He also highlighted that this experience was central to his work at Eglin in shaping an approach for the roll out of the F-35B to the USMC.
When asked about the evolution of the F-22 into the most lethal SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) aircraft ever built, Berke underscored that F-16 pilots were key players in shaping thinking about this evolution for the F-22 and its contribution to the overall air combat effort. (Think of this in terms of Syria, equipped with advanced Russian SAMs.)
“The fifth generation pilots are going to have to be trained that firing first is not their core con-ops. Giving validated targets to other shooters is the ‘to be’ condition,” Wynne said. “This is reversing decades of training and experience where the instinct is to fire first and ask questions later.
“With fifth-gen aircraft you are setting up the air space for air dominance, and weapons are delivered from assets throughout the managed airspace. Without the fifth generation aircraft you have to fight your way in and expend significant effort just trying to survive. With the fifth generation aircraft you are setting up the grid to shape the offensive and defensive force to achieve the results which you seek.”
Berke also emphasized the core challenge of re-shaping the pilot’s instincts as evident in legacy aircraft.
“I am often asked to compare legacy to fifth generation aircraft and this is really difficult to do if you have not flown the aircraft. I love my F-18 and it will always be my aircraft,” Berke said. “But it can never be a fifth generation aircraft.
“The basic way to understand the fifth generation aircraft is that it allows you to determine where in the battlespace you will fly, without the adversary setting up force barriers which need to be destroyed before I can operate a legacy fleet.
“In my F-22 or F-35 I can operate in the full spectrum of combat – RF, EO, IR, etc. – and can do so with width and depth of operational reach. The fleet is core to understanding this reality.”
He emphasized that the F-35 has more depth than does the F-22 operating in a full spectrum environment.
“The F-35 adds layers of depth on top of what the F-22 has because there are so many different sensors looking at any field — anything in the spectrum deep, not just the radar.
“It’s not just the array, it’s not just the Electrical Optical Targeting System (EOTS); it’s not just the Distributed Aperture System (DAS or the system which allows the aircraft to see around itself in 360 degree space). It’s all those things overlaid. And so you don’t just have breadth, you have huge depth in whatever part of the spectrum you want.”
Berke also underscored the challenge of shifting the pilot’s instincts.
“As a combat pilot in legacy aircraft you are working with data to execute a mission; and you fly with wing men. In the fifth-generation world, you do not have wingmen and you do not have data. You have information. The data is behind the glass and the screen provides the information. In effect you are shifting from being a tactical asset doing tactical aircraft missions to a more strategic engagement.”
“This clearly affects the direction pilot training and combat thinking must now be ingrained as a part of the fifth generation driven revolution. This must be understood in the theater command structures designing are war-winning strategy.
“There’s a burden now that the Raptor community is feeling, and that the F-35 community will begin to feel. The tactical aircraft is no longer just a tactical platform with strategic implications. It is a tactical, operational, and strategic platform when it needs to be. There is an obligation now because the burden on the pilot has been lifted because the information is so high fidelity, it’s so accurate, and real time, and so plentiful, that the pilot now has to see himself and view himself in a larger context than we had in the past.”
In a context like Syria, the fifth generation assignment might be to retarget incoming cruise missiles to target mobile launchers as they move. This is all about movement and situation awareness.
Berke hammered home again and again that his experience underscored that one was describing different epochs in air combat capabilities and approaches.
“How could I possibly compare the F-35 to a F-18? I have zero criticism of the Hornet. I love that jet. The Eagle is a fantastic airplane. Those are fantastic airplanes that I know and love and will miss not flying when I retire, but it’s just a disservice to both airplanes.
“Such a comparison dilutes the real capability that we’re getting with fifth generation and incorrectly assigns capability to an airplane that was never designed, has no capacity to do tasks that have been designed into the new generation of aircraft. The legacy aircraft operated in a different time with a different environment, and a different world where we didn’t have the expectations or climate for a tactical platform to do the things that a fifth generation aircraft is built from the ground up to do.”
Wynne concluded: “The challenge now is to comprehend that America and the F-35 integrated international fleet has in its arsenal the wherewithal to create conditions for peace for another generation or two.”
You can watch a video of the Wynne-Berke interview by clicking here.