Just what is the F-35?
It depends on how you wish to fight.
The F-35 Lightning II airplane, adopted in different variants by the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marines, and fifteen allied nations, is still largely misunderstood. Yes, it has the usual new system problems, including being more expensive per flight hour than desired.
But new system’s challenges are not limited to the F-35 and lie within U.S. acquisition processes. The more enduring F-35 challenge is legacy thinking. The “F” designation for the warplane is one illustration of this issue.
Part of a system in use since early in the previous century, “F” designates a fighter designed to defeat enemy counterparts—purely symmetric combat. “A” meant an attack aircraft, for example the famous A-4 Skyhawk, or “Scooter” as the pilots called it. John McCain was in an A-4 when he was shot down over Hanoi while on an “attack” mission. “B” was the designation applied, naturally enough, to bombers, such as the B-29 of World War II fame, and the B-52, still in service, albeit modified with new engines and electronics, since the 1950s. Some aircraft started out as fighters but proved very capable in the attack role as well.
Probably the best example of this adaptability is the McDonnel Douglas F-4 Phantom II. It started with service in the Navy but was quickly adopted by the U.S. Air Force and the Marine Corps, and several allied countries. It was a quintessential product of that era in American technology that emphasized raw power. The Shelby Cobra, the Chevy 409, the Corvette 427, and other muscle cars found their airborne equivalent in the Phantom II. “Speed is life” became a motto, as the Phantom’s biggest advantage in air-to-air combat was acceleration and thrust, enabled by two powerful engines. When things did not go your way, a favorite maneuver was to point the nose skyward and bury the throttles in the firewall.
“Air” became a combat domain in the early twentieth century. It was the fourth, after land, sea and undersea. Warfare’s complexity grew geometrically with the addition of each domain beyond the one understood by Cain and Able. Now the number of these “domains” have doubled, with the addition of space, cyberspace, electromagnetic spectrum, and the information space. Weapons technology within and among these domains has expanded. T
oday, Russia claims to have a nuclear-tipped torpedo. Missiles can fly at hypersonic speeds, inbound warheads conduct evasive maneuvers, and cyber warfare and cyber-crime threaten the U.S. homeland. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are increasingly essential to take advantage of a massive amount of data produced by American military systems. Autonomous systems assume increasingly complex roles from combat through logistics. Space-based laser weapons even earned a mention in scatological U.S. political discourse.
The F-35 enters service while America is struggling with a shift from analogue systems and thinking to new forms of combat with high operational tempos enabled by automation, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and other phenomena. American forces collect far more data than the military’s current processes can analyze at any relevant operational speed. The F-35 contains more than eight million lines of computer code that run on its advanced digital systems. It processes data onboard, and shares information and its operational picture with ground, sea, and air and other assets. Multiple F-35s across the battlespace can collect exponentially more data and share sophisticated operational pictures. And all of this is coming at a speed that calls for a high degree of autonomy in U.S. weapons systems. Humans build the algorithms, machines execute. Human command, machine control, in other words. This is not new. It would be a great extension of autonomous systems already in use, for example the Navy’s Close-In Weapons System or CIWS. This system, named Phalanx, does autonomous search, detection, evaluation, tracking, engagement and kill-assessment functions.
Exploiting the F-35’s capabilities within a robust command and control network with high degrees of artificial intelligence to instantly take massive data and transform it into understanding, and maintaining a constantly updated common operational picture, will bring the needed operational tempo to fight outnumbered yet dominate.
Christian Brose’s book Kill Chain, appropriately subtitled “Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare,” speaks to this issue and the F-35:
“Most U.S. military systems are many years behind the state-of-the-art technology that commercial companies … are developing. The most capable computer onboard a U.S. military system is the core processor in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which has earned it the nickname “the flying super-computer.” The processor can perform 400 billion operations per second. By comparison, the Nvidia DRIVE AGX Pegasus can conduct 320 trillion operations per second right onboard a commercial car or truck. That is eight hundred times more processing power.”
“Compared to the rest of U.S. military programs, when it comes to being an intelligent system, the F-35 is light-years ahead. The information that most U.S. military machines collect is not actually processed onboard the machine itself. It is either stored on the system and then processed hours or even days later when the machine returns from its mission. Or it is streamed back to an operations center in real time, terabyte by terabyte, which places a huge burden on military communications networks. Either way, it is a job for human, not machines, to comb through most of that data and find the relevant bits of information. In 2020, that is the full-time job of literally tens of thousands of members of the U.S. military.”
The F-35 can fight, air to air, air to surface, and air to space. It can serve as a firing platform for other weapons as directed. But its real advantage lies in allowing the rest of us to fight, across air, land, sea, undersea, space, and cyberspace, within a highly automated, robust network at an operational tempo that exceeds any opponent.
The F-35 is clearly a game-changer for our armed forces–and it needs to be recognized as such.
Wallace C. Gregson served as a former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs (2009—11) and is currently a senior advisor at Avascent International as well as senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest. Gregson last served as the Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific; Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific; and Commander, U.S. Marine Corps Bases, Pacific, headquartered at Camp H. M. Smith, Hawaii.