UAVs and the F-35: Partners in Air Power?
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UAVs and the F-35: Partners in Air Power?


What role will drones play in planning for high intensity war in the Pacific? A recent report from the USNI indicates that the Navy is planning to use the UCLASS UAV, an F-14-sized piece of equipment with some stealth characteristics, as a potential missile truck.  Although knowledge that drones had a role to play in air superiority had become more or less widespread within the national security community, this is one of the best descriptions of how, specifically, the Navy envisions integrating its drones into its air defense system.

The question of how UAVs will contribute to air superiority goes to the core of the utility not just of the UCLASS, but also of the F-35C.  If we envision the JSF as the centerpiece of a networked system-of-systems that includes subsurface, surface, and unmanned aerial assets, part of a chain of capabilities between see-er and shooter, it begins to look like a much more formidable weapon, its drawbacks as a fighter notwithstanding.

The practical objections to the use of UAVs for air superiority are well known. UAVs lack the situational awareness of piloted aircraft, and are extremely vulnerable to electronic counter-measures that can disrupt communications with their operators. Even a few seconds delay in relaying commands can prove fatal for a UAV. At the same time, developing drones sufficiently autonomous to manage themselves in air-to-air combat is genuinely scary; no one wants a drone that can kill on its own.

But if we evaluate the contribution of the drone not in isolation, but rather as part of a system-of-systems for air dominance, its utility becomes clearer. Stealthy F-35s operate in contested environments, identifying and tracking targets, with the UAVs supplying the missiles that the JSFs can’t carry on their own. Even the payload challenged F-35B can contribute in this context; having as many F-35s in the air as possible increases the clarity of the picture offered to pilots and commanders.

Indeed, this is precisely the type of aerial warfare that the developers of the F-35 envisioned. Although this vision has been part of the Joint Strike Fighter program for some time, it has not, for whatever reason, been articulated clearly to the public. Our public conversation still struggles to conceptualize specific weapons as part of a larger system, rather than with respect to their individual characteristics. This hardly means that programs such as the F-35 or the UCLASS should be above criticism, but it does suggest ways to add nuance to the critique.

It’s not a stretch to argue that the F-35C and the UCLASS UAV will structure American naval aviation for the foreseeable future. These reports give us a better indication of how the capabilities can be expected to work together, and help illuminate the utility of both programs.

January 4, 2014 at 22:28

At this point there is no doubt that the F-35 and UCLASS will structure American naval aviation for the foreseeable future; we’ve committed to it regardless of the recognizable shortcomings. Moreover, the value of the UAV as a missile truck and drones fully integrating into air defense will be pivotal to our ability to maintain air superiority. This article however, coming on the heels of two other articles; “F-35C Will Be Eyes and Ears of the Fleet” and “The Navy’s New Drone Will Be Able To Fight Other Planes”, which similarly tie the F-35 to UCLASS, shows there is a coordinated political emphasis to validate why we are spending so much money on JSF, that JSF is falling short of why it was created (normal at this stage of a strike-fighter aircraft’s life cycle), and highlights a lack of understanding on the part of military leadership of the networked battlespace and how assets best integrate into it to support decision makers in the end to end execution of the kill chain (F2T2EA – Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, Assess).
First, the F-35C relies on stealth. This technology is its greatest advantage. As a single engine aircraft it will not have the legs, thus will require a logics supporting cast of either future UCLASS tankers or F/A-18 E/F tankers to support it. That defeats stealthiness. Second, while F-35C will be linked into a Networked maritime battlespace, in order to identify and track targets it must emit its radar, data links and/or communication systems. Regardless of how we encrypt these or hide them from the threat, especially in the A2AD environment, this fact limits its ability to function in the role envisioned in this and the other two articles mentioned because it negates the stealth advantage.
Surely the F-35C will be a significant jump in capability from the F-16 and F/A-18C, but attaining the levels of “Global Situational Awareness” envisioned here and required to direct the execution of the F2T2EA Kill Chain across not only the air but the surface and subsurface environments is a stretch. To make a simple comparison; It is not the same as acting as a FAC(A) for ground forces or for localized surface forces countering a small boat threat. That is why we have both the ABC2 and Maritime Air Controller (MAC) roles. Current strike fighter aircrew at the highest levels of competency and experience do not fulfill these roles nor are they trained to them tactically or even conceptually. The why behind that is not just resident in the capabilities of modern strike fighter aircraft and how we employ them in fulling the target and engage pillars of the kill chain, but also in the nature of structured current and future Carrier Strike Group (CSG) operations. Keeping it simple however, because like all strike fighters, the aircraft’s physical limitations inhibit it over a sustained period, there are a myriad of other assets that fulfill this role. The author already recognizes that the F-35 will possess “shortcomings as a fighter”, yet we now want to make it the premier airborne C2 node as well? Not to mention the capabilities to control UAVs which will exist on surface units, but there are other airborne C2 assets which can or could fulfill the role of linking to UCLASS and managing the kill chain end to end much more effectively and cost efficiently. To name a few; P-8A, E-2C/D, and the USAF’s E-3 and E-8 aircraft. Making the investments in these platforms to ensure they are able to fully support a networked battlespace would likely be a fraction of what we will spend on JSF already, as well as in an effort to move it away from the roles it already is struggling to fulfill.
Let’s get the F-35 where it needs to be as a strike fighter while continuing to leverage and invest in the C2 assets that have set us apart as the preeminent military; the C2 platforms which exist to fulfill the envisioned end state of a networked battlespace, as well as in some cases possess the ability to act as both seer-er and shooter . JSF should not be the centerpiece in the systems of systems, nor should we make the false argument that it can be.

Sabre 01
January 4, 2014 at 19:16

@ Jean-Paul,

Save this picture into your F-35 profile.

January 3, 2014 at 11:39

Interesting concept , lets hope that the F35 and it’s partner drones is indeed stealthy enough to suprise a SU 35 or any other Sukoi fighter. Because if it is not or the Russians have found a cheaper counter measure to neutralize the drones and even the F 35 it’s a turkey shoot for the Russians.

January 4, 2014 at 01:49

Where in the world do you envisage such a conflict with “the Russians”?

The F35 does not have enough range to reach any “middle ground” and neither does the SU35! Any conflict between these two countries would involve far more devastating weapons than these fighter toys.

Sabre 01
January 4, 2014 at 18:14

@ Willowway,

The Su-35S has got the range. Here’s the information.

Range with maximum fuel and two RVV-AE AAMs:

Combat radius 981 miles (1,580 km)

At high altitude 2,236 miles (3,600 km)

Ferry range with two 528 US gal (2,000 litre) external fuel tanks 2,796 miles (4,500 km)

January 5, 2014 at 01:11

@Sabre 01

I assume that you realize that it is 7500kms from Moscow to New York. On its own the Su35 could barely make it half way. As you know the F35 could not make it the other half.

Such a meeting could only take place at a prearranged time at some mutually agreeable location with agreement from the host country. Perhaps Iceland would host such a joust. After hassling during the day the belligerents could meet at a local pub and discuss the days fun.

Such nonsense!

January 3, 2014 at 11:18

This article confirms that we will continue to be involved in the beating up of poorly defended third world nations.

Anything more than that will quickly escalate into the use of ICBMs. and make all the foregoing discussion irrelevant. That, of course, assumes that none of the nuclear weapon possessing powers will accept defeat without a fight to the death! And they won’t.

January 3, 2014 at 10:21

This is what proponents of the F-35 have argued all along. The F-35 was never meant to compete against fighters like the SU-35 in a direct dog fight. This is a 21st century fighter, dog fights are becoming obsolete, a relic of the 20th century.

F-35 haters simply do not know what they are talking about at the end of the day. The F-35 is simply one piece of a very large, complex and inter-connected web. I’d love to see a squadron of these + UAVs against a squadron of traditional fighters. I doubt a squadron of SU-35s would even be able to detect a single F-35 before they were all shot out of the sky.

Sabre 01
January 4, 2014 at 17:36

@ Jean-Paul

This is not a 21st century fighter, dogfights still remains you bloody idiot. Stop drinking too much Kool-Aid.

The F-35 was defined during the mid-1990s to have “affordable” aerodynamic performance, stealth performance, sensor capabilities and weapons loads to be “affordably” effective against the most common threat systems of that era past – legacy Soviet Cold War era weapons for the 20th Century, not for the 21st Century anti-access/area denial threat environment which the F-35 will certainly be obsolete.

The F-35 will be unable to do this. If the mission is to take on anti-access & area denial threats, the F-35 is unable to do it. If the mission is anything else, current aircraft like the F-15, F-16, F/A-18 and A-10 are more than enough for low to medium threat environment.

The anti-F-35 simply do know what they are talking about at the end of the day. The pro-F-35 advocates and fanboys like you don’t know what they are talking about at the end of the day. The F-35 is simply a piece of junk that its “real mission” for the aircraft is to fail the air force, navy and marine corps requirements. I doubt a squadron of F-35s would even be able to detect a single Su-35 before they were all shot out of the sky.

BTW Jean-Paul read about The Latest Word on F-35 Unit Cost

Sabre 01
January 4, 2014 at 17:56

@ Jean-Paul

Spin it whatever you want.

Just go copy & paste the baloney information of the F-35 from Lockheed Martin into your beloved F-35 profile.

Oh yeah. How is the F-35 a “21st Century fighter” that is unable to take on anti-access/area denial threats and it’s ineffective against the current generation of advanced Russian and Chinese systems??? Come on lets hear the testing of evidence here.

January 3, 2014 at 04:35

Isn’t this really just a tacit admission that the F-35 isn’t all that and a bag of chips?

Oro Invictus
January 3, 2014 at 08:27

No. No it’s not.

What it is is an argument that the F-35 is designed to function within an operational paradigm by which many of the metrics applied against are insufficient to derive an actual picture of its functionality. Put another way, the article is arguing that judging the F-35 as a traditional fighter operating within traditional protocols is akin to judging a fluorescent bulb by its virtues as a wax candle.

January 3, 2014 at 11:12

In other words, they designed the F-35 without knowing what its capabilities would be, found them to be something a standard fighter could fill better, and so are now trying to redefine air combat so they can shoehorn their $50 gazillion dollar plane–, oops, I mean “new context combat aircraft” into our military’s TO&E.


Oro Invictus
January 3, 2014 at 12:01

Flippancy is a poor recourse after your (apparent) paralogism; I’m simply noting the argument the author is making, that you seem to have elided, is that the F-35 must is designed to function in concert with other systems such that it can’t adequately be judged by the standard archetype. That’s not my opinion, nor is it necessarily the argument (as far as I can tell) of the US Military, it’s simply the argument of the author.

January 3, 2014 at 18:16

Oro Invictus,

My flippancy is due to the fact that I know spin when I see it. The author, the Pentagon, Santa Claus, whomever… the fact is that by turning the F-35 into a network hub they are admitting its capabilities are not equal to those of an existing combat aircraft, that in fact what they have turned out is an armed AEW C3 plane.

“It can’t adequately be judged by the standard archetype” is a fancy way of saying it’s an expensive failure. If it can’t adequately be judged, then why designate it an “F”? In Air Force parlance, that is a “fighter.”

If it cannot be “adequately judged by the standard archetype” (golly but that sounds so intellectual!), then why try to replace the standard archetypes of existing fighter aircraft with it? The F-35 was lauded as being the next generation replacement to the F-15, the F/A-18, and the A-10… and now you’re trying to tell me it can’t be judged by the same standards as those other aircraft?

Mark, meet Snake Oil. Snake Oil will be taking you for several billion dollars, but if you give it enough fancy words and enough spin, it might treat you to a nice show.

The F-35 doesn’t get to redefine the game by dint of its expense. Its expense is redefining its role, but if we are not looking for a small, armed airborne C3 platform, why are we getting one?

In other words, don’t pee on me and tell me it’s raining. I know one from the other.

Oro Invictus
January 4, 2014 at 01:54

Once again, I’m not defending the author’s argument, I’m simply noting what it was. If you have any issues with said argument, direct it towards the author; the only reason I commented here is because of your (apparent) misrepresentation of the author’s argument. Personally, from what I know of the program, it seems that it most certainly has been a boondoggle economically in regards to it’s R&D, but it’s still unclear whether the final product is without virtue or not.

January 4, 2014 at 04:38

” I know spin when I see it”

And you spin your own…
The F-35 is not “turned” into a network hub. It already is.
It is designed as a network/sensor hub right from the get go. That is why you have all the sensors and systems build in right from the start. That why it has a high-speed data bus, legacy planes sorely lack.
Teaming the F-35 to the UCLASS UAV is a logical step to do and will expand and force-multiply the combat-cloud of the 5th gen concept. Failing to understand this is failing to understand the concept which transcends over the individual qualities of the plane and the drone.
This what the author is trying to warn people from, and you fall for it.

January 3, 2014 at 10:00

The F-35 somehow always reminds me of the F-104 that was used as a multi-role fighter by some world air forces despite its unusually stubby wings.

January 4, 2014 at 00:10

F-35C lacks the range and weapons payload needed for the Pacific. The UCLASS design will overcome these limitations, however the question then becomes why the F-35 over the Super Hornet? The SH is essentially equivalent to F-35 when fit with conformal tanks, can carry a much wider array of weapons, and is 1/3 to 1/2 the cost of F-35C. F-35 backers in the USMC and OSD have been fighting the Navy about what UCLASS will be, trying to make it more an ISR platform than a strike aircraft. The Navy has been walking on eggshells trying to make it seem like UCLASS will complement the F-35, while in reality, it will be a direct competitor, only more capable. The SH is the Navy’s air superiority fighter, and will continue to be when the F-35C and UCLASS enter service. One can only imagine what the 2-seat SH and Growler can accomplish when teamed with UCLASS.

January 5, 2014 at 23:40

Here’s another reason why the F-35 is becoming much cheaper too Tdog, as the copper wiring in the initial ‘network’ of the F-35 is being replaced by fiber optics!

As ‘Flexible at 4:38′ has tried to explain to you, the F-35 is already designed to be a ‘network’ platform from the very beginning. Hence the JSF can send both digital and analog signals through the network simultaneously to its internal components, other fighters, and naturally can be adopted to use the UCLASS drones as well as ‘missile trucks’ as it were.

Of course, since you and ‘Sabre 0′ are both ignorant of the communications network abilities of the F-35, this would explain a lot!

Sabre 01
January 8, 2014 at 17:01

@ MYK,

I can continue on and I’ll be happy to testing the evidence.

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