By Wing Commander André Adamson and Colonel Matthew Snyder

Plan Jericho, published in 2015, outlined a strategy that would transform the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) into a fifth-generation air force by 2025 which, if delivered on schedule, would make it the world’s first. This transformation is not based on merely the possession of the next generation of aircraft technology including the F-35A, P-8 Poseidon, EA-18G Growler and E-7A Wedgetail, but on a reconceptualisation of the RAAF as an integrated, networked force. Significantly, this new operating concept is based on working in a highly collaborative manner with the Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy, industry, and allies – especially partners in the F-35 programme – to achieve the full potential of the new technologies, and to ensure that the networked force can work effectively with them.

The Australian plan has given many air forces pause for thought. That an air force comprising fewer than 15,000 regular personnel is seeking to transition to an entirely fifth-generation air force within the next decade to meet its strategic and security objectives demonstrates an undertaking to conduct future air operations in a conceptually different way. The commitment to a similar transformation among other F-35 partners is firmly underway – both the US Air Force (USAF) and Royal Air Force (RAF) have pledged to transition to fifth-generation air forces.[1] In contrast, for air forces that are not committed to a fifth-generation programme, or the transformational concepts that underpin it, the time is rapidly approaching where a hard-nosed evaluation and decision will need to be made on where they want to be as an air force in the next 10-15 years. The choice is tactical, strategic, and political.

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An E-7A Wedgetail from No. 2 Squadron RAAF sits on the tarmac at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, during Exercise Red Flag 18-1. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

Since the inception of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) precursor of the F-35 in the mid-1990s, there has been a broad, often polarised, and inevitably highly charged debate surrounding the programme. Over the past decade, as the first prototypes took to the air, this debate focused on cost – perhaps unavoidably given that it is the most expensive military project in history. As the aircraft subsequently moved into its production phase, attention shifted to technical problems with engines, software, and its data fusion capabilities. More recently, however, supporters of the F-35, not least the international partners themselves, have highlighted successes that indicate that the programme may have now turned a corner. These successes include the declaration of initial operating capability (IOC) by the US Marine Corps and USAF, production rates steadily increasing, encouraging feedback from the increasing number of F-35 pilots, and an impressive performance in exercises.

Although these positive developments may not entirely amount to a ‘game changer’, they arguably represent significant steps forward in the delivery of the fifth-generation capability. It is, therefore, useful to frame the debate regarding a new template: that of a capability that is, if not yet fully validated, nonetheless in the process of being delivered to partners, tested in increasingly challenging scenarios, and moving towards full operational capability (FOC). This article analyses some of the stakes involved as this capability increasingly acts as a driver for fifth-generation transformation, and to consider some of the implications for air forces that have committed to fifth-generation programmes and, perhaps more significantly, for those that have not.

Defining Fifth Generation

Most people are now familiar with the term fifth-generation as the naming convention most often used when discussing this next generation of fighter aircraft. Although there is no specific or formal definition of what constitutes a fifth-generation fighter, it is routinely accepted that those aircraft that are designed and capable of operating in highly contested operational environments. To be able to do so it is accepted that the platforms must have not only low-observable features inherent in the design of the aircraft but also onboard radar and sensor features that include low-probability of intercept and low-probability of detection. They also must possess highly sophisticated self-protection and jamming systems combined with advanced avionics and powerful computers. This integration has allowed the evolution of a capability to fuse both onboard and off-board data without the involvement of the pilot. These aircraft are, therefore, able to feed real-time information autonomously into the joint operational network, significantly increasing the awareness and reducing the decision time of commanders. It is, therefore, essential to define a fifth-generation system not just as a fighter but as a system able to operate in a networked and integrated manner. Fifth-generation systems fundamentally revolve around powerful fusion capabilities which enable fusion of data to create a highly accurate picture of the battlespace independently of an operator.

These new systems present clear operational advantages over older platforms. In the ever-increasing high-threat environment characterised by modern integrated air-defence systems (IADS), fifth-generation platforms can operate where non-fifth-generation platforms cannot. Their ability to work cooperatively and talk with other platforms in the battlespace transforms even a limited number of assets into significant force multipliers and force enablers. Thus, the F-35 is not only an air asset; it is also a collection platform which can interact with, and provide data to, both ground and maritime forces. However, possession of such an advanced platform comes at a considerable price. It is complicated to take a non-stealth platform and make it stealthy. Therefore, not only does a country need to sign up to make a significant financial commitment to purchase a fifth-generation platform such as the F-35, but significant investment is required elsewhere, such as in new maintenance facilities and the robust data networks that are necessary to exploit its full capabilities. It is worth briefly reviewing the reasons for the decision to commit to the F-35 programme for those states that have joined.

The Partners and Why they Joined the F-35 Programme

Nine countries originally signed up as partners to the JSF programme, the precursor to the F-35: the US; the UK; Australia; Canada; Italy; The Netherlands; Norway; Turkey; and Denmark. Three others committed through Foreign Military Sales: Israel; Japan; and South Korea. As the most expensive military development and procurement plan in history, the F-35 has attracted a great deal of controversy since the development contract was signed in November 1996. From its conception, the JSF was to be an international co-development programme, a decision that was driven by several factors. All the partners were either NATO countries and/or close US allies, and there was, from the outset, a clear imperative for interoperability and interconnectivity in coalition-based air operations. The partners had been operating a range of different platforms of varying levels of capability, and the F-35 enabled them to operate the same aircraft with all the evident advantages that it brings regarding interoperability, training, logistics, among others. Furthermore, the partners were all involved, to varying degrees, in the design, building and testing of the aircraft. This was a unique element of the programme that helped maintain domestic hi-tech military industries. The UK, for example, was the only Tier 1 partner and is responsible for 15 percent of the aircraft, worth an estimated £30 billion over the lifetime of the programme sustaining 24,000 jobs. The European F-35 production facility in Cameri, Italy, is projected to bring $15.8 billion of economic benefit to the Italian economy.[2]

The F-35 programme and the cooperative and industrial advantages it confers are, however, as described above, more than the next-generation platform conceived at the outset of the JSF programme. The F-35 represents a commitment by the partner air forces to exploiting a range of new, highly advanced capabilities that constitute a step change in the gathering, processing, and sharing of information, particularly in contested environments. Indeed, it is the recalibration of strategic and operational thinking that has been driven by the requirement to operate in those increasingly contested environments, and against near-peer adversaries, which has proved so persuasive in winning the argument for the fifth-generation partners. It has required a shift in thinking and a reconceptualisation of the conduct of air operations in the joint and combined environment through the significantly enhanced surveillance, command and control, and information sharing that fifth-generation capabilities provide. It also compels fifth-generation air forces to integrate and network with land and maritime forces in an unprecedented way – next-generation air forces will require next-generation joint forces.

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An F-35 Lightning II performs a maneuvre on 12 September 2016 over Luke Air Force Base. This sortie marked the 10,000th flying hour for the F-35 program at Luke. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The countries that committed to the F-35 programme did so over 15 years ago following the first flight of the prototype X-35B. As described above, motivations at the time were primarily centred on the requirement of those air forces to replace their legacy fleets, or to run those fleets alongside platforms that exploited the latest technological developments, including stealth. The potential of those technologies has evolved significantly over the subsequent years, often beyond the original expectations and understanding, and those air forces which are part of the programme are now beginning to take delivery of a capability that represents a genuine generational change. The geopolitical context has also evolved over that period and, following 15 years of assumed air superiority in Iraq and Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency operations that followed, the air forces that will be using the F-35 are discovering that they have a capability that is credible in contested environments. However, most of those air forces have equally begun to realise that having a fifth-generation aircraft does not merely equate to having a fifth-generation capability as defined above. Although the US Marine Corps declared IOC in 2015 and the USAF in August 2016, there are still significant challenges to be addressed, both technically and conceptually, before the declaration of a genuinely fifth-generation FOC. Furthermore, there are undoubtedly continuous and continuing problems in the development of the F-35 itself, as might be expected in a programme of such size and complexity and the programme is, by some order of magnitude, the costliest in the Department of Defense’s history.[3]

Implications for F-35 Partners of Integrating Fourth- and Fifth-Generation Fighters

F-35 deliveries are now firmly underway with over 200 jets flying, most of the partners operating their aircraft and production rates scheduled to exceed 60 per year soon. This puts considerable pressure on those partner countries and Foreign Military Sales customers to prioritise the elements that will allow them to realise the full force-multiplier potential of the aircraft. This includes the enhanced data management, connectivity and bandwidth upgrades required to operationalise and fully exploit the capability that fifth-generation aircraft offers for information-centric warfare and cross-platform connectivity.

In this regard, the F-35 has a ‘forcing function’ for militaries looking to adopt a fifth-generation standard. Naval and ground forces stand to benefit significantly from the network-centric, cross-platform, multiple-shooter concept of operations of which the F-35 will form such a significant element. As Justin Bronk suggested, given the almost unlimited scope of connecting the F-35 to every system in the battlespace, joint force commands will be compelled to invest in the connectivity and bandwidth for the platforms that stand to provide the most significant increase in combat power and flexibility.[4] This will drive the development of fifth-generation joint forces, a concept that has significant potential, particularly in contested environments. It also is a critical element of underpinning programmes such as Plan Jericho – the transformation to an integrated networked joint force that has combat power much more significant than the sum of its parts.

Whereas the RAAF is looking to upgrade its entire legacy fleet over the next decade, most of the F-35 partners, including the USAF, will need to run their legacy fleets alongside their fifth-generation platforms for some years beyond that. The RAF and Italian Air Force, for example, possess the highly capable Typhoon, a fourth-generation aircraft with high performance, an active scan radar, Link 16, and a comprehensive air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons suite. As Bronk pointed out, in such cases investment in the F-35 and Typhoon should not be seen as a binary choice as ‘each aircraft offer strengths to complement the other’s capabilities. The combination of F-35 and Typhoon can be far more potent than a force composed entirely of either type in many operational scenarios’.[5]

As a US-led, but highly collaborative, programme, development of the F-35 has drawn the partners together. The sharing of technologies, concepts, tactics, training, maintenance, logistics, and procedures represent a significant opportunity for fifth-generation air forces. With the F-35 being operated by so many states there are also substantial prospects for tactical, technical, and conceptual innovation which will allow the aircraft to be highly ‘future-proof’ without compromising issues such as sovereignty, national defence industries or strategic autonomy. All these elements contribute to powerful forces drawing the F-35 partners into what might be described as a fifth-generation ‘club’. The level of international cooperation is unprecedented, with pilots training together at the F-35 multinational pilot training centre at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, maintenance facilities being developed in Italy, Turkey, Norway and The Netherlands, and a global logistics supply chain. The result is a deepening of cooperation between the partner air forces, many of whom already possess a strong ability to do so through links forged over the years through NATO and operating in coalitions since the end of the Cold War.

Implications of Integrated Fourth- and Fifth-Generation Air Forces for Countries that are not F-35 Partners

Air forces that have not yet committed, or do not have current plans to transition to fifth-generation systems, will need to consider the operational and strategic implications of such decisions. Four areas should be considered considering future military operations: the ability to engage near-peer adversaries in a high-intensity environment; the military status and political parity with allied countries; the integration and collaboration capabilities with partner forces; and the potential limitation of the depth and breadth of defence technological innovation.

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One of the UK’s first F-35B Lightning II aircraft takes off from Eglin Air Force Base, c. 2014. (Source: UK Ministry of Defence)

As previously discussed, fifth-generation systems are not merely about employing stealth attributes, but rather about harnessing the substantial advancements in processing ability and data fusion capabilities inherent in such systems. Tellingly, the aim is to create and operate a networked environment where the lines are seamless between sensors, shooters, and operators. As a result, air forces that do not possess these capabilities are likely to find themselves increasingly relegated to a supporting rather than a leading role in planning for, and executing, future contingency operations. Countries that are not able to contribute and operate effectively in high-threat environments will potentially find themselves not on an equal footing with their coalition partners, a position that may compromise their role in military operations and, increasingly, political decision-making. Except for Australia, all the original nine partner countries are NATO members, allowing the smaller air forces of the Alliance – such as Spain and Belgium – to mitigate the limitations of their continued reliance on fourth-generation assets by optimising the capabilities of the F-35 with their legacy platforms in a NATO context. For larger Western countries not in the F-35 programme – such as France and Germany – there will be pressure to prioritise the optimisation of their existing platforms with the capabilities of the F-35. France faces the challenge of preserving its much-valued strategic autonomy, continued global aspirations and protection of its defence industrial base in the context of fifth-generation transformation. In his evidence to French MPs last year the Chief of the French Air Force, General Lanata, warned that, in less than five years, the F-35 would become the standard for operating in the most demanding operational scenarios, and that it would bring to a head the decision as to whether an air force can engage in those scenarios in the future.[6]  In short, without fifth-generation aircraft, an air force risks being in a supporting role in a coalition air environment and will require a fifth-generation partner to provide mission success against a near-peer adversary.

Finally, the benefits of privileged access to the highest level of military technology enjoyed by the F-35 are substantial. The highly collaborative nature of the programme ensures that technology transfer occurs at an unprecedented scale and provides a wealth of opportunities for hi-tech defence industries across the partner countries. The fact that so many states will operate the F-35 will also boost the opportunities for innovation in disciplines such as engineering and avionics, as well as tactics and concepts. For air forces outside of the programme, technological advances can, of course, be pursued at the national level but they will not benefit from the exchange of ideas, concepts and innovation that are generated by this collaborative programme.

Conclusion

This article has articulated some of the critical implications for air forces committed to a fifth-generation programme centred on the F-35 and for those that have not. After a decade and a half of delays, setbacks, and bad press, the F-35 programme and the technological advancements linked to it are gathering momentum. The programme is driving the partner states not just to unprecedented levels of military cooperation and convergence but also developing the networked joint forces necessary to operate in an increasingly contested environment. For states that have chosen to not participate in the fifth-generation programme, the challenges will be tactical, strategic, and political.

At a tactical level, operators of legacy fleets will struggle to interoperate effectively with the F-35 and other fifth-generation assets and indeed may degrade the effectiveness of coalition operations centred on fifth-generation systems. Furthermore, they may well be restricted to operating only in semi-permissive environments with a low IADS threat. At a strategic level, air forces that do not operate fifth-generation platforms may face the challenge of not being considered on an equal footing with the F-35 partners who, within a decade, are likely to have developed means to fuse, process, distribute and exploit data that will out-pace anything that even updated legacy fleets can match. At a political level, the range of credible options available to a national executive in the context of a highly contested environment against a peer competitor risk being limited. There will, therefore, be an increasing onus on air forces not operating fifth-generation platforms to articulate a credible and conceptually coherent ‘offer’, what they can contribute to a fifth-generation-led coalition, for example, to justify their status at each level. This will be a point that will not be lost on many who look to avoid the risk of fourth-generation air forces being restricted to a supporting role in the air environment against a near-peer.

Furthermore, partners in fifth-generation system development are pushing the boundaries of collaborative networked systems and transforming military operations. The ‘forcing function’ – the incentives generated by the F-35 for further technological developments and integration – provides a potent impetus for change and innovation among the fifth-generation partners. Conversely, countries not actively involved in fifth-generation transformation are starting to face a capability gap that will only continue to widen over the next decade. Other means – political, financial, or industrial – will be needed to drive the change necessary to mitigate the divergence or offset its effects. Set against these challenges, these air forces might argue that their national security priorities over the next 10-15 years are perfectly well met by remaining outside the F-35 programme and the fifth-generation capabilities of which it is a core element. An approach such as this relies on updating fourth-generation assets in the short term and developing other solutions either nationally or in collaboration with other partners for deployment beyond the 2035 timeframe. They might also credibly contend that legacy assets are inherently less vulnerable to disruption of the networks on which fifth-generation platforms rely and that the significant costs associated with the programme could be more effectively apportioned elsewhere to meet those national priorities.

The arguments presented in this article suggest, however, that the implications of this approach in the longer-term are potentially severe and that there will be, eventually, a cost regarding capability, operational effectiveness, technological superiority, and status. Writing in 1989, William Lind et al. wrote that ‘whoever is first to recognize, understand, and implement a generational change can gain a decisive advantage. Conversely, a nation that is slow to adapt to generational change opens itself to catastrophic defeat.’[7] Although he was writing in the context of the end of the Cold War, Lind’s observation remains apposite and is at the core of the conceptual leap being undertaken by Australia, the US, the UK and the other F-35 partners. These are increasingly clear strategic choices that will have implications for all air forces, and they will soon discover whether the price will have been worth paying.

N.B. This article is derived from the author’s work as published in The RUSI Journal. See: André Adamson and Matthew Snyder, ‘The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation,’ The RUSI Journal, 164:4 (2017), pp. 60-6.

Wing Commander André Adamson is an officer in the RAF and was until recently liaison officer for the Plans Bureau with the French Air Staff in Paris. Colonel Matthew Snyder is an officer in the USAF and strategic partnership exchange officer for the Plans Bureau with the French Air Staff in Paris. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of their respective organisations.

Header Image: An F-35 Lightning II departs RAAF Base Amberley for the Avalon Air Show, c. 2017. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

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[1]  The RAF has decided to refer to a ‘next generation’ air force in its recently published strategy to emphasise the concept of integration and to reduce the risk of the strategy being seen to be platform based. See RAF, Royal Air Force Strategy: Delivering a World-Class Air Force, (London: Royal Air Force, 2017).

[2] PWC, ‘Italian F-35 Lightning II Program: Economic Impact Assessment,’ February 2014.

[3] By way of comparison, the estimated cost of the US Navy’s first four new Gerald R Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers will cost approximately $50 billion and the costs for modernising all three components of US nuclear forces will cost approximately $350 billion over the next decade. See, Congressional Budget Office, ‘Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2026,’ February 2017.

[4] Justin Bronk, ‘Maximum Value from the F-35: Harnessing Transformational Fifth-Generation Capabilities for the UK Military,’ RUSI Whitehall Reports, 1-16 (February 2016), p. viii.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Franck Delétraz, ‘Le cri d’alerte du général Lanata,’ Présent, 8 August 2017.

[7] William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR), ‘The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,’ Marine Corps Gazette, (October 1989), p. 22.

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