It is the interconnected C5ISR delivered by the fleet, coupled with the ability to work with the off-boarding of weapons, which shapes a new way forward. Target acquisition does not have to be limited to weapons carried on board. This means that classic distinctions between tactical fighters doing close air support, air superiority missions or air defense missions become blurred. The fleet as a whole identifies targets for the various mission sets and can guide weapons from any of its elements to a diversity of targets. The reach of the fleet is the key to the operation of the fleet, not the range of individual aircraft.
As General Hostage, the Air Combat Commander, put it during an interview Lt. General (Retired) Deptula and I conducted with him last December:
"The ability of the planes to work with each other over a secure distributed battlespace is the essential foundation from which the air combat cloud can be built.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
And the advantage of the F-35 is the nature of the global fleet. Allied and American F-35s, whether USAF, USN, or USMC, can talk with one another and set up the distributed operational system. Such a development can allow for significant innovation in shaping the air combat cloud for distributed operations in support of the Joint Force Commander."
With many Pacific allies already committed to the F-35, and with the USAF and USMC planning to deploy their new aircraft to the regionin the next couple of years, a fleet of F-35s will clearly emerge in the Pacific and shape combat capabilities the next decade out.
The movement of data among the elements of the fleet will be the beginning of the 21st century equivalent to what the U.S. Navy called the “big blue blanket” over the Pacific in World War II. Clearly, the U.S. will not have the assets to do this by itself, but with the emergence of interconnected fleets this aspiration can come closer to reality.
And with it will be the ability to build the kind of attack-defense enterprise essential to deal with the evolving threats in the Pacific, and the efforts of China to undercut the significant lynchpin role that the United States plays in the Pacific.
An inherent characteristic of many new systems is that they are really about presence and putting a grid over an operational area, and therefore they can be used to support strike or defense within an integrated approach. In the 20th Century, surge was built upon the notion of signaling. One would deploy a particular combat capability – whether it be a Carrier Battle Group, Amphibious Ready Group, or Air Expeditionary Wing – as a marker to signal its presence and intentions to an adversary. Depending on the adversary’s response, additional forces would be sent in to escalate the threat capability.
With the new multi-mission systems – 5th generation aircraft and Aegis for example – the key is presence and integration able to support strike or defense in a single operational presence capability. Now the adversary can not be certain that you are simply putting down a marker.
This is what former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne calls the attack and defense enterprise. The strategic thrust of integrating modern systems is to create a grid that can operate in an area as a seamless whole, able to strike or defend simultaneously. This is enabled by the evolution of C5ISR, and it is why Wynne has underscored for more than a decade that 5th generation aircraft are not merely replacements for existing tactical systems, but a whole new approach to integrating defense and offense.