It is difficult to discuss the F-35 without actually knowing what the aircraft is and how F-35 fleets will reshape combat. But this is precisely what the budding negative commentary on the F-35 is built on – a lack of knowledge.
Even worse, the existing 5th generation aircraft is not well known either, because of its limited numbers and its condemnation by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and President Barack Obama as a “Cold War” weapon. One could note that when the latest Korean crisis flared up, those “Cold War” mainstays, the F-22 and the B-2 (which has been flying now for more than 20 years) were called upon very quickly. And the U.S. Air Force (USAF) began to do sortie surge exercises in Hawaii and Arctic exercises in Alaska to increase the quantities of F-22s available for immediate Pacific operations.
I have had the opportunity over the years to interview many F-22 and F-35 pilots, maintainers and builders as well as the subsystem suppliers of the F-35. Much of the capability of the aircraft, including its multiple integrated combat systems are evolutionary steps forward, and low risk systems, such as the active electronically scanned array (AESA) built by Northrop Grumman for the F-35.
What is radically new about the F-35 is the fusion of data in the cockpit and the shaping of a new decision making capability within the aircraft and the fleet. The aircraft permits situational decision-making, not just situational awareness. It is a C5ISR (Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Combat Systems, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) aircraft, which allows the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) alone to replace three aircraft, including an Electronic Warfare Aircraft with the F-35B. This is also why Singapore has referred to the F-35B as a “cost effective” aircraft.
But understanding the real value of the F-35 one must consider its operation as a fleet, not simply as an individual aircraft. The F-22 was built as an aircraft, which flies in 2, and 4 ship formations, but unlike the F-15, the “wingman” is miles away and not anywhere to be found in visual range. As one pilot put it to me: “When we take off together that is the last time we see each other until we land.”
The F-35 also has the capability to operate miles away from one another, but with a major difference. The individual airplanes are interconnected, operate in 360-degree operational space, and the machines pass the data throughout the network. Each individual plane can see around itself for significant distances in 360 degree space, which has already underscored the need for a new generation of weapons, for existing systems such as Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) operate in half or less of the space which each F-35 can see beyond itself.