It has just been over a year since From Balloons to Drones was established as a platform for the discussion of air power broadly defined. Since our first post, we have published 40 pieces on a variety of subjects ranging from the historical to the contemporary. We have had articles dealing with issues related to the efficacy of air power, the topic of military education and the future of air power. We have also recently started a new series, Air War Books, that explores the books that have influenced air power writers. Contributors have come from around the globe including contributions from Finland and Australia. I am grateful to those who have contributed to the site. Without them, there would not be much here. However, most of all, we have received regular traffic from people interested in reading what we have written, and for that we are grateful.
Just as a bit of fun, here are the top five posts by views:
These are just a selection of the articles that have appeared over the past year, and we look forward to adding regular content as we continue to develop. To do this, we need to expand our list of contributors continually and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions, then please leave a comment here or emails us at email@example.com.
Header Image: English Electric Lightnings of No. 56 Squadron RAF during an Armament Practice Camp at Akrotiri, c.1963. In the foreground, a technician is preparing a Firestreak missile for loading. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)
Reports in the Sunday Times and other newspapers this weekend have highlighted a number of familiar issues in defence acquisition. Tales of gold-plated requirements, service chiefs ‘gaming’ the system to get preferred projects funded, and delays are familiar ones stretching back over decades.
While some of these issues raised in the press reflect aspects of reality, a vital part of the story is missing. This is the withering away of the vital ability of the services and industry to work together on a project using the language of design. This stretches back to the mid-1980s, when Michael Heseltine brought an industrial figure, Peter Levene, into the Ministry of Defence to head its procurement division. This was seen as a radical challenge to the defence establishment at the time, in line with the Thatcher government’s policy of bringing entrepreneurs from the private sector into government to gain efficiency savings.
There is a history of private business people attempting to shake up defence acquisition. In the 1960s the Kennedy administration brought Robert McNamara in from the Ford Motor Company as United States Secretary of Defense. In the 1970s and 1980s David Packard, of Hewlett-Packard fame, was similarly used to introduce private sector practices to the US Department of Defense’s acquisition projects.
On both sides of the Atlantic, this approach has a mixed track record. The introduction of competition and a reduction in single-service projects saw some benefits in the US and the UK. However, the introduction of taut, arms-length contracts and competition broke the links that allowed design teams in industry to speak openly to the military requirements writers. Allied to the privatisation of the state-run research establishments, who provided advice and assessment on both requirements and designs, this led to a lack of communication across the acquisition process. A taut contract is no replacement for informed dialogue.
A good example of how this dialogue leads to success is the Harrier ‘jump jet’, a highly risky technical concept. Starting as a private design by industry in the 1950s, it was refined with support from the research establishments before it was adopted for service by the UK and US armed forces. Flying prototypes before a final requirement was written meant that when it did enter service, the project was on time, on cost and met almost all specifications; one small shortfall in manoeuvrability was discussed as not being worth the cost to fix. The success of the Harrier in the Falklands in 1982 showed that this was the right decision. The shared language of design, spoken openly between MOD and industry, led to the Harrier’s success.
In 1985 the Harrier’s original designer, Ralph Hooper, retired; the same year that the Levene reforms started to end the ability of designers to develop new projects while talking openly to requirements writers and technical experts. Instead, a contract that defines roles and responsibilities is expected to lead to success, although it is hard to see any examples of this working in the years since – for example, the Harrier’s successor, the F-35B Lightning II, has yet to replicate its record of delivery on time or cost.
Ralph Hooper originated the Harrier design out of a sense of idle interest. The project was, as he says, the product of a lot of people. The first contract for the aircraft came when the prototypes were being built, having proceeded with a ‘nod and a wink’ from government. The trust engendered by having all those involved in the design of a complex system in industry, the services and government able to discuss design openly are a continuing need for successful defence acquisition. That we no longer do this, due to competition and contracts, lies at the heart of the issues reported in the press over many years, not just one weekend.
In the past couple of days, several sources have reported on the fact that in 1986, the US President, Ronald Reagan, offered Britain the opportunity to co-operate on stealth technology and purchase the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk. Details of the project, codenamed MOONFLOWER, have become known through the recent release of files by the British National Archives. This release is part of the material coming out of the Prime Minister’s files for the 1980s and the specific reference for MOONFLOWER is PREM 19/1844. An important issue to note with these files is that they have not been digitised and were opened just before the New Year. This is an important consideration when reading many of the reports on the internet as it is probable that the one in The Guardian – from which most derive – has only cited certain parts of the file. Indeed, I have not read the file yet.
The F-117 remains one of the most iconic aircraft of the latter part of the Cold War. Publically announced in 1988, the F-117 emerged from Lockheed’s Have Blue project and was developed by the company’s Skunk Works division. The F-117 was first operationally used in the US invasion of Panama in 1989, but it was during Operation DESERT STORM that it rose to prominence. During the 1990s and 2000s, the F-117 was used in other conflicts, and one was shot down in 1999 during Operation ALLIED FORCE, and it was eventually retired in 2008.
What appears to have got people talking is the fact that Britain was offered the F-117 at a time when it was still officially a ‘black’ project i.e. before it existence was officially acknowledged. Moreover, according to the various reports, the key reason that Britain did not pursue purchasing the F-117 was for this very reason. However, while this may be one reason for rejecting the F-117, it should be noted that while the release of British files is interesting, this is not strictly a new story, though it is potentially a new dimension. Several histories of the F-117 cite the fact that in 1986, several Royal Air Force (RAF) test pilots were sent to fly the aircraft. For example, Paul Crickmore reflected that the RAF ‘had its chance to evaluate the F-117’ as a thank you for British support of Operation EL DORADO CANYON. However, what these secondary sources lack is the archival evidence to understand why the evaluation took place. It is probably – though I would not like to say for certain until I see the file – that this assessment formed part of this project.
As already noted, the reason cited in the reports for the RAF not purchasing the F-117 was the ‘black’ character of the project; however, I have to wonder how well this aircraft would have fitted into the Service’s force structure and concept of operations in the 1980s. Moreover, it will be interesting to see if anything more is mentioned in the file as to why the F-117 was not purchased. Nevertheless, a few issues come to mind that may have been challenges. First, the RAF operated at low-level in small packages, and I am unclear how the F-117 would have fitted into this concept of operations. Second, by 1986, the RAF was in the middle of purchasing the Panavia Tornado that had been designed for the low-level role, as such; again, what additional capability the purchase of the F-117 would have added to the RAF at this point remains unclear. Finally, there is the issue of numbers. The F-117 was never built in significant numbers, and it seems unlikely that the RAF would have bought more than the United States Air Force, as such, again, what additional capability would the addition of a highly complex piece of equipment have added to the RAF? Yes, it would have added a stealth capability but this needs to match a concept of operations, and in my mind, this remains a murky area. As such, this is more an interesting example of the so-called ‘special relationship’ rather than a significant ‘What-If’ for the RAF.
This is not, however, where the story ends as in 1995, Lockheed once again tried to sell the RAF an improved F-117 that included locally produced content, such as GEC-Marconi supplied avionics. This approach was in response to the RAF’s Staff Target (Air) 425 that had began the process of looking at replacing the GR4 variant of the Tornado, which became known as the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS). FOAS closed down in 2005 and aspects were rolled into Future Joint Combat Aircraft project that has seen the purchase of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II – an aircraft with a stealth capability.
Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Header Image: A pair of specially painted F-117 Nighthawks fly off from their last refueling by the Ohio National Guard’s 121st Air Refueling Wing, c. 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Paul F. Crickmore, Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2014), p. 26.
 Guy Norris, ‘Lockheed Martin targets RAF and USAN for F-117,’ Flight International, (28 June to 4 July 1995), p. 4.
 Louisa Brooke-Holland, ‘The UK’s F-25 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter,’ Standard Note (SN06278) UK House of Commons Library, (6 February 2015), pp. 5-6.
In airlift terms, the C-17A Globemaster III has arguably made the biggest single impact to Western Air Forces in the 21st Century thus far – and will likely hold this claim for the next decade. While it was conceived for the United States Air Force in the 1980s and introduced to service in the 1990s, its acquisition by nations including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom has given Western Air Forces its first real appreciation of modern strategic airlift. For the USAF, which arguably wrote the book on strategic military airlift, has also benefited significantly from the C-17A’s tactical airlift talents. Elsewhere, the aircraft has been capitalised upon by NATO, India, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait.
With the production line closing in 2015, it is unlikely that we will ever see new Globemaster airframes constructed beyond the 279 that were delivered by McDonnell Douglas/Boeing (and indeed, a small number have been relegated to a museum or lost in an accident). This is not to say that we will not see new C-17 variants, especially if the Globemaster lives to see service past 2040, half a century after its first flight. Getting the airframe to that point (and beyond) however, will require careful attention and development.
Certainly, the C-17A has been no stranger to being developed over its 25-year history thus far. With a production spanning 15 years, older C-17As have been upgraded to match their newer kin with radios, weather radar, and combat lighting. A centre wing fuel tank was fitted to C-17As constructed after 2001 to extend the aircraft’s range, and in recent years, aircraft have been equipped with Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures and improved communications systems. Early Block Upgrades to the C-17A addressed design flaws in the original production aircraft – more recent ones have addressed issues of obsolescent aircraft systems and ensured fleet commonality.
How else might we see the C-17A mature in the next 30 years?
Numerous aircraft go through their service career with modest increases in capability to allow them to continue in their intended role. Indeed, it is arguable that the C-17A has maintained this track to date with the changes it has undergone thus far. The purpose of such upgrades are not so much to advance the aircraft beyond the original design intent, but more to ensure it remains compatible with current/immediate operating practices and airborne environments. Compatibility with any new Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) or battlespace networking systems, or global air traffic control management systems, are examples of this.
The aircraft’s cockpit ergonomics are still reminiscent of its early 1990s design, so it is not unreasonable to expect a countermeasures Mid-Life Update program that would improve the quality of cockpit displays, communications management, and other avionics. Newer airlifters such as the C-130J and A400M are equipped with larger HUD units and displays that can incorporate digimaps or other navigational data. A precedent for upgrading the C-17A exists, whereby old air mobility platforms (including the C-130H, KC-135 and C-5) have replaced their ‘steam gauge’ instruments and analogue controls with LCD screens and digital displays. Replacing these systems means eliminating obsolescence and ensuring the cockpit ergonomics have greater commonality with the wider air mobility and training fleet, and potentially improving the ease with which software updates can be applied to the aircraft.
Slightly More Ambitious Options….
The upgrades mentioned above were in large part to ensure the C-17A maintained pace with its operating environment. More ambitious upgrades, however, would provide new ways of performing its current mission. Evidence exists within existing air mobility platforms like the KC-135, which has been upgraded with navigation systems that now allow the aircraft to operate without a Navigator.
How could this apply to the C-17A? It is hard to judge this, as it is largely contingent on the technology that will be available to us in the next 15 years. It is easy to imagine a technology that has been applied to the A400M and C-130J being rolled out on the C-17A. It is harder to imagine the impact that newer and emerging technology – such as helmet-mounted displays, external sensors, and personal devices – will have. New tactical airlifters benefit from infrared cameras that allow landings to be comfortably made of poor visibility conditions. Whether such technology has an application on the C-17A remains to be seen.
Likewise, the C-17A was revolutionary for its time by its use of a dedicated loadmaster station inside the cargo hold, a feature which has been capitalised by other airlifters. A future C-17A upgrade might extend on this further, allowing the loadmaster to control environmental conditions and cargo locks in the cargo hold with a personal electronic device, or direct automated aircraft loading equipment.
The High-End Option
High-end changes are easy to debate, being linked to systems on the aircraft that will become wholly inefficient or unsustainable during the aircraft’s life-of-type. These changes would be sufficient to mean the end of the C-17A as we know it today, delivering us a noticeably different aircraft – a C-17B or C-17C, for example.
Again, existing examples allow us to make educated guesses about the future, not only about the systems that are applied and upgraded but the causes for doing so. The C-5M Super Galaxy is the product of a program upgrade older C-5As and Bs with new engines, new avionics, improved cargo ergonomics, and most importantly, greater aircraft reliability. It essentially brings an aircraft design whose systems have their roots in the late 1960s and gives a 21st-century solution. The net result is a Galaxy with a shorter take-off distance and better climb rate, as well as extended range. While the C-17A is reliable now, we can expect to question its relative performance in the future, especially if the expectation is for the aircraft to beyond a 30-year lifespan. Upgrading the C-17A could prove less expensive than embarking upon an all-new airlift replacement, too.
Achieving this could take some paths. Replacing the engines on the aircraft, especially in light of advances in civilian airliner power plants, would be the most obvious choice. It could yield a Globemaster that is more fuel-efficient or carries heavier payloads, and the C-17A’s existing power plant – the Pratt & Whitney F117 – is a militarised version of the turbofan that powers Boeing 757s. One issue here, however, is that C-17A engines are required to perform across a different spectrum than a stock civilian airliner. This means a simple transplant of a civilian power plant will not likely address the C-17A’s performance needs.
Other considerations for a potentially major upgrade to the Globemaster might include those options put forward by Boeing during the late 2000s to improve the aircraft’s tactical performance. Considerations for the ‘C-17B’ including a new higher thrust powerplant, double-slotted flaps, additional centre-line landing gear, and precision landing systems. Arguably, the additional weight of some of these systems would come at a cost to the aircraft’s range and cruise efficiency. On the other hand, a sub-fleet of C-17s optimised for tactical performance to deliver payloads that can not be accommodated in a C-130 (and are unable to be transported over long ranges by future heavy vertical lift)
Examining options for the Globemaster’s future may see it called to perform roles that are well outside the traditional airlift roles that the aircraft performs today. Few would argue that the C-17A’s talents are best applied to providing dedicated strategic and tactical airlift. The external surfaces of a C-17A, however, provide significant ‘real estate’ for discrete sensors and antennas, and the aircraft’s interior likewise has space that would allow it to fulfil support functions for C4I and ISR – especially if the terminals for such roles are significantly smaller and modularised, contrasting with the fixed workstations that fill C-135 and Boeing 707 variants operated by the USAF. Today, other platforms (such as those based on commercial airliners) might conceivably fulfil this role more efficiently and effectively than a Globemaster. However, future requirements – especially those that call for an aircraft to deliver personnel and vehicles, then remain near provide immediate support – might dictate that the C-17 is the aircraft for the job.
The last consideration for the Globemaster receiving a ‘high-end’ upgrade is that it might pick up new roles not even in service today. The aircraft has been mooted as a potential ‘Drone Mothership’ in a battlespace, deploying them to perform a range of ISR, attack, and strike missions. Alternatively, the C-17A’s cargo bay has considerable space for batteries and other systems that would employ high-energy weapons.
Where the Globemaster ultimately fulfils any of these roles is anyone’s guess – while the technology is being developed, it is by no means about to be applied to the C-17A. Once said technology is mature, there are no guarantees that the C-17A will be the best jet for the job.
The Likely Options
At a minimum, progressive upgrades will need to be applied in the future to ensure the C-17A can continue to be operated. The crew stations are likely to be developed over time, as are the aircraft’s avionics, communications and networking systems. Foreign operators should bear these developments in mind – on the one hand, the upgrading of their aircraft is likely to have a greater impact on the number of aircraft they have available. On the other hand, such programs are an avenue for them to suggest development roadmaps that can be shouldered by Boeing and USAF. Exploring these avenues, however, would have to be a modest process. However, it is unlikely that an entirely new C-17 variant will be developed if only one smaller operator is guaranteed to require it.
With that in mind, the Globemaster’s future development is likely to be informed by three things – keeping the airframe viable, the USAF’s appetite to embark on upgrade programs, and Boeing’s willingness to provide options. Lockheed Martin’s C-5M program provides an excellent example of where the C-17A can go with such updates, replacing aircraft structures and systems that have become tired and unreliable while also meeting demands of the customer to capitalise on generational changes in engine, avionics, and ergonomic technology. Indeed, the C-5M in some respects feels like it carries some of the best features of a C-17A (except the HUD and fighter control stick).
Strategic airlift development, however, emphasises the importance of cruise efficiency and performance, which is often largely dependent on reductions in the aircraft’s weight and improvements in a power plant. Such upgrades are easy to forecast in the C-17A’s future. The more ‘creative’ upgrades for the Globemaster will be in how it is required to perform tactical roles in future – or approach brand new problems.
Eamon Hamilton graduated from the University of Western Sydney with a Bachelor of Communications (Journalism). He works as a Public Affairs Officer for the Royal Australian Air Force. He lives in Sydney. He runs the Rubber-Band Powered Blog and can be found on Twitter @eamonhamilton.
Header Image: A C-17 arrives with GEOS-O on board at the Shuttle Landing Facility. (Source: Wikimedia)
In a recent piece for The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation in Australia, Robbin Laird has suggested that rather than describing the F-35 Lightning II as a 5th Generation aircraft, we must think of it as ‘a first generation information and decision making superiority “flying combat system”.’ (Emphasis in original)
Arguably, this is an important shift in how we think about the capabilities of this new platform and the implications this has regarding how we think about air power. However, this labelling of platforms and capabilities raises several interesting observations and what follows are some personal opinions on the issue of ‘labels.’
First, and while we should always be careful of generating faulty parallels, as a historian, I am quite certain I have heard similar phrases before namely Giulio Douhet’s ‘battleplane’ concept. In short, in the second edition of his seminal work Command of the Air, written in 1926, Douhet argued that the roles of combat and bombing should be combined with a single type of aircraft, the ‘battleplane.’ This was a move away from his thinking outlined in the 1921 edition of Command of the Air, but as Thomas Hippler has noted, at a conceptual level, the ‘battleplane’ was important because it allowed Douhet to reconcile the ideas of war in the air and war from the air. For Douhet, both were synonymous and one, though whether this proposed platform would have solved that challenge remains debatable. This was clearly a lesson derived from Douhet’s views of the First World War. Nevertheless, the problem with the ‘battleplane’ idea is that it was a solution to one set of circumstances and would not have applied to all situations where the use of air power might have been called upon. Could we end up in the same situation if we think of the F-35 in a similar vein?
Second, a broader issue with Laird’s description is that of buzzwords or phrases. Buzzwords tend to be created to support someone’s vision of the future, and they are unhelpful if not grounded in some form of intellectual rigour. Indeed, buzzwords and phrases are certainly not something limited to air forces but pervade the military more broadly. For example, in the last few days, it has been reported that the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations has decided to shelve the use of Anti-Access/Area-Denial as a ‘stand-alone acronym’ primarily because it ‘can mean all things to all people or anything to anyone.’ This is an important point, and the same can be said of effects-based operations, which was fashionable in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Both of these strategies are ideas that have history, and we should be careful about trying to re-invent the wheel. As I recently heard from one colleague, if you want a new idea, read an old book. As such, is the description being applied to the F-35 helpful when thinking about the application of air power? It is indeed being linked to the idea of 5th generation strategy, but we must continually ask the question within the question and seek to understand what is underpinning such statements. For example, is the platform important or the ideas about their use? Also, should we be careful about linking platforms to strategy?
Nevertheless, while I would advocate the need to critique statements, such as Laird’s, there is certainly always a case to build new language and ideas to explain future challenges. This is particularly important for air power because, since the end of the Cold War, it has become, arguably, the West’s preferred way of war. Nevertheless, as Tony Mason reflected, ‘while our technology is lifting us into the 21st century, our formative concepts remain rooted in a bygone age. This comment remains as relevant today as it did in 1998. While today’s core air power roles can be identified in the activities of the First World War, it is perhaps an axiom that as with any field of human endeavour, the language and ideas about the use of military aviation should and must evolve as time goes by and situations change.
This, however, raises my third point of how we improve and encourage the conceptual thinking that underpins many of the statements made by commentators and practitioners. It is ok to have opinions and advocate them; however, they must be derived from the intellectual study of the field. Indeed, while advocacy can create friction, that friction, in turn, can generate innovation, which is important if organisations are to adapt to changing strategic, operational and organisational shifts. However, it should also be recognised and understood that such friction needs to be managed so that it does not become divisive as it arguably did at the strategic level between the RAF and Royal Navy in the inter-service debates of the 1920s. This is clearly an issue of education, and how that process is utilised and retained by air forces. This is difficult for western air forces primarily because they have been involved in sustained operations for at least the past decade. This has not given air forces significant time to think and reflect on their craft as their focus has been elsewhere. Nevertheless, air forces have, where possible promoted thinking. For example, the modern RAF runs a fellowship to encourage study and expand the Service’s ‘intellectual capacity.’ However, this intellectualising of air power needs to filter back into the development of thinking, policy and doctrine and refresh the lexicon while providing the necessary foundations to attempts to redraw conceptual boundaries.
Just to conclude, this is clearly a thought piece and does not propose any solutions to the challenges of today; however, we should be very careful about the labels we apply to platforms, capabilities and concepts. Terminology, as the discussion section of Laird’s piece, illustrated, matters and has a tendency to carry cultural baggage. In developing effective thinking about the application of air power as part of the solution to strategic challenges, air forces need to think about their place in the pantheon of options open to policy makers. I would argue that in an age of austerity and uncertainty, this requires air forces an investment in the organisation’s human element to generate the capacity to think effectively about the conceptual component.
Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Header Image: An F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter test aircraft banks over the flight line at Eglin Air Force Base, 23 April 2009. (Source: Wikimedia)
 Thomas Hippler, Bombing the People: Giulio Douhet and the Foundation of Air-Power Strategy, 1884-1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 147. There is a question over the correct date for Douhet’s second edition. Hippler consistently refers to it being produced in 1926 while the most recent imprint of Dino Ferrari’s 1942 translation describes it as the 1927 edition, see: Hippler, Bombing the People, p. 144; Thomas Hippler, ‘Democracy and War in the Strategic Thought of Guilio Douhet’ in Hew Strachan and Sibylle Scheipers (eds.), The Changing Character of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 181, fn. 13; Guilio Douhet, Command of the Air, translated by Dino Ferrari (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998), p. x. It is clear, however, from the original Italian that while published in 1927, the second edition was written in 1926.
 For a useful discussion of effects-based warfare that takes account of historical and contemporary views as well as a multi-domain approach, see: Christopher Finn (ed.) Effects Based Warfare (London: The Stationary Office, 2002).
 For useful views on future air power thinking, see: John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015).
 Air Vice-Marshal Professor Tony Mason, ‘The Future of Air Power,’ RAF Air Power Review, 1(1) (1998), p. 42.
Ten years after its first flight and nine years after Detective John McClane brought one down in Live Free or Die Hard, it seems the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is finally here. Well, at least the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps versions. Love it or hate it, it is here to stay. I do not want to get off into the discussion of what the F-35 can or cannot do, and we all know it is being asked to do a lot. Per Lockheed Martin’s website the F-35 is supposed to provide: ‘electronic attack, Air-to-Surface, Air-to-Air, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Stealth, Interoperability, and Full Mission Systems Coverage’ (whatever that last one is). That is many missions to cram into one airframe. We are all familiar with the Close Air Support (CAS) debates on the F-35 versus the A-10, and we have all followed the slow, arduous, and downright sloth-like advancement of the F-35 until this point. I have been known to walk both sides of the argument with the F-35.
I get it, it is behind schedule, and it is over budget, but so are all of my home improvement projects. I am not sold that it can effectively do everything it is billed to do, but I am also willing to give it a fighting chance in the coming years. For those that have followed the military aircraft industry for a few decades, you will know that every airframe has had its initial struggles: the F-22, F-16, F-15, each and every one of them were plagued by issues. The F-35 is no different with perhaps the one exception that we can all take to Twitter to complain about it. I would rather focus on something entirely different.
All, the F-35 is conducting missions. No, it is not dropping bombs on IS (yet), nor is it providing CAS sorties in Afghanistan. No, it is not even deployed overseas in-theater, but that will come with time as well. However, it is creeping ever closer. Last week, USMC F-35s of VMFA-121 participated in the USAF’s Red Flag exercise. This is a big deal. If you have followed me for more than a hot minute, you know that Red Flag is near and dear to my heart. I have written extensively about, most notably here.
Participating at Red Flag is a major step forward for the entire F-35 program. You can think of Red Flag in some different ways. First, it helps to ‘season’ inexperienced pilots. USAF created Red Flag in 1975 to give its fighter pilots exposure to their first ten ‘combat’ missions. The entire purpose of the exercise was to simulate combat in a realistic training environment. Reports after Vietnam, most notably the Red Baron Reports, indicated that a pilot’s chance for survival increased exponentially after the first ten missions. Second, it exposes units and aircrew to other units and aircrews. Across the spectrum of aerial operations units have to integrate and work together to accomplish the mission. An F-22 pilot of the 1st Fighter Wing at Langley Air Force Base, VA., does not have the opportunity to fly against US Navy, USMC, and other USAF fighters on a daily basis; Red Flag provides that opportunity. The participation of VMFA-121 is as important for the F-35 and its flyers as it is for every other participant in the exercise. This is the first chance for many of these aircrews to see what the F-35 is capable of during mission parameters. This particular Red Flag exercise will see the F-35 integrate with F-22s, F-16s, F-18s and other support aircraft. Finally, Red Flag has traditionally been an exercise used to integrate new aircraft and capabilities with existing missions and platforms. This was true of the F-15 in the 1970s and the F-22 in the 2000s, and it remains true for the F-35 in 2016.
Weapons schools will continue to push the bounds of what the F-35 can do, and we can continue to argue over that, but exercising the F-35 at Red Flag allows other members of the armed forces to see what the F-35 does do.
Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.
Header Image: F-35Bs, assigned to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Az., sit on the flight line during Red Flag 16-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev on July 12, 2016. (Source: US Air Force Photo)