This story is part one of a three-part series on the innovations, and the problems, of the F-35, the newest warplane entering service in the United States and with several allied nations. Follow the links for parts two and three.
The F-35 Lighting II is the most expensive weapons program in the history of the human race, and production is now being kicked into high gear. The main Lockheed Martin factory for the F-35, located in Fort Worth, Texas, is beginning the long ramp-up to get to full-scale production, which is expected by 2019. The F-35 is supposed to replace in whole or in part a large number of different aircraft types and is intended to operate for at least 50 years.
So, naturally, one of the very first things people want to know is whether or not the plane is any damned good. The US taxpayer is footing a bill that, over the next several decades, will run several hundred billion dollars and involve buying a couple thousand aircraft, and critics have complained that the jack-of-all-trades F-35 is a master of none.
In a bid to get a handle on that, VICE News went to Naval Air Station Patuxent River (a.k.a. Pax River) in Maryland to talk to some F-35 test pilots and get a fundamental grip on why and how the plane will be used. The Navy is the second-biggest customer of the plane, after the US Air Force and before the Marines and several allied nations. It plans to replace most of its F-18 Hornets with it.
US Navy Commander Christian "Wilson" Sewell, a top Navy F-35 test pilot at Pax River, is happy with his new ride. "I love the F-18, I grew up with the F-18, I'm a Hornet baby, but bottom line is that I'd take the F-35 into combat," said Sewell, who until a few weeks ago also ran a lot of the F-35 testing program.
But taking a machine into combat means many things. As you might expect, there are a ton of contentious (but not always well-informed) arguments about whether the F-35 is good, bad, or indifferent. But often those arguments miss the most basic question: What is the plane actually supposed to do?
To suss that out, it's best to start with the late Colonel John Boyd of the US Air Force, and his OODA Loop. The acronym stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act, and it's a pretty decent model of how people or organizations make decisions (in war, business, and everything else).
There is a lot of nuance baked into the model, but a super simplified version of the OODA Loop is that first, some event occurs and someone notices it (Observe). That person then gets busy positioning herself mentally and physically to figure out why she gives a damn and what the hell she's supposed to think about all this (Orient). Now that she's facing the event, she chooses some course of action (Decide) and then actually does whatever it is she's going to do (Act). This action creates some sort of effect out there in the world. Whatever happens next is the new event that kicks off the cycle again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
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When applied to combat jets, the first phase of the decision cycle, the Observe phase, is all about who sees who coming first. The F-35 is stealthy (or, as military jargon would have it, "Low Observable"), which means it's hard for other aircraft to see with radar and other sensors. Aircraft are made stealthy through a combination of radar-absorbent coatings and shapes that deflect returning radar signals away from the transmitter. If two identical planes have the same sensors, but one is stealthy, then the stealthy aircraft will see the non-stealthy one a long time before it gets seen itself.
The second piece of the Observe phase is the sensors. And the F-35 is absolutely chock-full of electronic sensors. Synthetic aperture radar, Digital Radio Frequency Memory, multispectral infra-red, Distributed Aperture System, and all kinds of other stuff with hard-to-pin-down but impressive-sounding names. It is, in theory, supposed to do things that are currently done by aircraft like the E-2 Hawkeye, EA-6B Prowler, E-8 JSTARS, E-3 Sentry (a.k.a. AWACS), and the RC-135 family of aircraft.
The first two aircraft, the E-2 Hawkeye and EA-6B Prowler, are Navy radar and electronic warfare planes, launched from aircraft carriers. The latter three are land-based aircraft that respectively watch the movement of vehicles on the ground, observe and control aircraft, and do a whole slew of electronic reconnaissance and jamming. Collectively, these aircraft are part of a class of things called "enablers." Enablers don't fight directly, but they enable other jets to get on with their main job: blowing stuff up. In this case, those aircraft enable other jets, ground forces, and ships by providing good sensor coverage and electronic warfare capabilities.
Normally, aircraft are specialized, particularly enablers. Aircraft big enough (think commercial airliner size) to slog around the big radar an E-3 Sentry uses are going to be lousy at air-to-air combat; meanwhile, any aircraft agile enough to be a decent dogfighter is going to be too small to carry a massive radar. But something happened along the way with stealth. Stealth isn't perfect invisibility, it just makes a plane harder to find. So in order to use stealth, more advanced stealth aircraft started packing in a whole lot of sensors to see where hostile radars were and avoid them. From there, it was just one more step to take the advanced sensors that would have to go on a new stealth strike fighter and dial all that up a few notches.
Certainly, the small physical size and available power of the F-35 places hard limits on how well it can perform the roles normally played by specialist enabler aircraft. There's just no way an airframe that size can carry as large an antenna or generate as much power as a larger aircraft or one that doesn't have to carry weapons and other gear. But, in the end, the F-35 is the first attack aircraft that can perform electronic warfare and reconnaissance roles in any meaningful way.
Even if the F-35 isn't filling the full range of roles of dedicated aircraft and can't perform those missions quite as well as specialist planes, it's still a significant step to get that recon, jamming, and combat gear all loaded on the same jet.
For example, the F-35 is supposed to be able to "autonomously find surface to air missile systems," Sewell said. "To autonomously find them, to detect them, to track them, engage them, and egress. To be able to do that mission using typical legacy systems [i.e., older aircraft] required lots of different platforms: reconnaissance, listening/jamming, and a strike platform. But according to the requirements, it's supposed to be able to do that all by itself."
Basically, in setting up the plane for a mission, the pilot sets up the conditions under which the plane should tag someone as hostile, for example, locking on with targeting radar. But once in flight, the plane is actively helping the pilot keep an eye out for bad guys, according to whatever rules the pilot sets for the plane before flight.
So, taking the Observe cycle all at once, the F-35 has two advantages: Not only is the plane going to be a lot harder to spot as it approaches, but its new-fangled electronics will spot the opponent much farther away. And being impossible to see while being able to see really, really far is the perfect definition of a scout or infiltrator.
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So now that the plane is observing the heck out of everything, our intrepid pilot can move on to the Orient phase. The pilot has a lot to do in the Orient phase of the decision cycle, either involving manual tasks inside the cockpit or pointing the plane this way or that.
In addition to all his OODA Loop stuff, Boyd was also a huge force behind the last generation of US warplanes, and that tells us something about how we got to where we are today. Part of it was his development of "Energy-maneuverability theory," which basically turned aircraft performance measures into a single number that would show how much kinetic energy a plane could bring to bear in a given situation. That thinking influenced the design of the F-15 and F-16 fighters.
Boyd's influence was more strongly felt in the development of the F-16. A small, single-engine, one-seat jet, the F-16 was the brainchild of a group in the Pentagon occasionally referred to as the Lightweight Fighter Mafia. They basically poo-pooed making big, heavy, lavishly equipped fighters with tons of electronic doodads and doohickeys, instead going to the other end of the spectrum: austere (almost stripped-down), cheap, high-performance jets, because all those big, expensive, heavy add-ons come at the price of maneuverability, agility, and cost. With less maneuverability and agility, it takes longer for a pilot to get through the OODA Loop, and therefore all that extra weight and cost turns out to be a vulnerability.
In a regular jet, like an F-16, a lot of the Orient phase of the OODA Loop (which in this instance is tied to the Observe phase) involves pointing the jet this way or that. In movies, this is usually the part where you hear a pilot getting very excited and yelling, "I lost him! I lost him!"
The F-35 instead has a very fancy helmet. In a nutshell, this extraordinarily expensive and complex hat gives pilots x-ray vision, allowing them to look through their own aircraft. The helmet projects information from a 360-degree infrared camera onto the pilot's visor (along with symbols showing other information like speed and altitude). The result is that a pilot can "look" down and see what the sensors directly beneath the plane are picking up about what's happening down below.
A pilot flying an older aircraft needs to turn the entire plane to figure out what's going on (developing situational awareness, in military parlance). But that takes valuable time. The helmet system means that F-35 pilots can simply turn their heads to see what's going on. This allows pilots to focus on other things, like the guy trying to shoot them down.
This ability also helps the aircraft remain stealthy and sneaky. Stealth aircraft are always stealthier from one angle than they are from another. With older, non-stealthy aircraft, it didn't matter much whether the bad-guy radar was off to your side or head on; you were getting tracked either way. But with stealth, the side of the jet that the pilot is presenting to the radar matters. Sewell explains: "In fifth-generation tactics, in stealth tactics, not having to move your jet is a plus, because we're always trying to control our signature and [which side of the aircraft is facing the enemy]." Now, the pilot doesn't need to maneuver — and in so doing reveal the plane's position to the enemy — just to find out what's going on.
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But that's all stuff outside the cockpit. During the Orient phase, a lot of stuff is going on inside the cockpit too. When flying an older plane, Sewell said, "I have to turn on the radar. I have to operate the radar. I have to tell the radar 'Hey, look over here. Look along this angle, look at this elevation. Go into this search pattern.' Now, I've got an [infrared targeting sensor] over here I have to turn on. I have to tell it to look over here. I have to make sure my electronic warfare and radar warning receiver is on and tuned properly. So I am busy operating those systems." Which, again, takes time.
Essentially, flying while trying to manage your radar, infrared, and electronic warfare is the dogfighting equivalent of texting while driving. At best, it's a big distraction, and at worst, it's a good way to end up driving into a tree, or getting shot down.
The F-35 automates a huge amount of sensor management. A pilot may have to spend a lot of time before a mission setting up preferences and telling the system to operate in a certain way, but it's easier to do that before you boot up the plane than once you're in the thick of things. (It's also a thorny issue with the current issue of the F-35's operating software; reports indicate that the plane occasionally needs to be restarted, like a balky computer, before being fit to take off and fight.)
This automation goes a bit further than just turning things on and off; it also includes "sensor fusion." In much older aircraft, the sensors didn't really talk to each other at all. So one system might set off an alarm that tells you that somebody has locked his radar on you, but that part didn't necessarily talk to your regular radar, to point out which particular plane was lighting you up. The F-35 does a huge amount of sensor fusion itself, basically presenting the pilot with a big map showing all the targets, all the bad guys, and all the good guys.
Critics of the F-35 also challenge the jet's maneuverability, particularly in a dogfight. Maneuverability is important not just in being able to orient yourself to see the threat, but also in being able to defeat the threat. The F-35 is, more or less, as capable as existing aircraft in this respect. The difference is that the F-35's advanced observational gadgets and gizmos also allow the pilot to use information instead of, or in addition to, maneuverability in his OODA Loop. While an older plane might need to be turned this way or that in order for the pilot to figure out everything that's going on before he can react, the F-35 pilot should be able to just look at where the action is and then make his move.
Early reports by a Norwegian F-35 test pilot indicate that the F-35 is a lot better dogfighter than the Norwegian air force's current F-16s, which the F-35 is meant to replace. That said, the other stealthy fighter in the US inventory, the F-22, should be able to beat the pants off an F-35. The F-35 is a multi-purpose plane. The F-22 is a specialist in air-to-air combat, and is going to win, because that's what it's made for.
If you take all this together, you end up with the unsurprising proposition that the F-35 is not as good at air-to-air combat as a cutting-edge, dedicated air-superiority fighter, but is a heck of a lot better than anything in the generation of aircraft designed in the 1970s, particularly when it fights on its own terms.
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With the Observe and Orient phases out of the way, we get to the Decide phase of combat. This gets to something aircraft designers have been talking about since the Wright brothers: pilot workload.
The F-35 program is invested in reducing pilot workload. Most of that is done before you get to the Decide phase, but the point of doing all that is to buy pilots more time in the Decide phase while helping them get through the decision cycle faster than the other guy.
This is where the pilot gets the payoff from all that top-shelf gear: "I don't look at a radar display or an infrared display," Sewell explained. "I just look at a map. Literally a map. And there are targets. Here's a plane, here's a ground target, whatever, now I can go put my cursor over it and see my radar is contributing to that along with the infrared.
"If I get to [a dogfight], now I have a [target] that's tracked by multiple sensors in multiple spectrum — it's fused together," he continued. "And guess what? Yes, it's all down here [in my display], but it's also in my helmet, so I just look, and there he is. 'Fox 3,' here goes the missile off toward him," he said, using the radio code for missiles guided by radar.
Which finally brings us to the Act phase of the process. Most of what the F-35 does isn't necessarily going to have a huge effect on action in all cases; a lot of that could be, for instance, a matter of weapons or missiles, rather than the plane that carries them.
Most of the interesting stuff that's new in the Act phase has to do with all the electronics the F-35 is schlepping around (and they're pretty classified). One cool bit is this idea of cooperative targeting; it's where one plane or ship carries a missile, but a different plane manages it. So you might have a big, old, non-stealthy aircraft tooling around way in the back, just lugging around missiles. The F-35 can ask for a missile to be fired off in its general direction. The F-35 then takes control of the missile, feeds it targeting information, and then uses it to blow stuff up.
There have also been a few rumors about the F-35's super-advanced radar that suggest it might even be able send an electronic signal as part of a cyber attack on the bad guy's electronics.
Now, like I said, this is a kind of rough take on all this stuff, but the big deal here — the point of the F-35, basically — is to change the way the plane is operated in combat through collapsing the amount of time needed to carry out the Observe and Orient phases, giving the pilot more time to focus on strategy and decision-making. The plane is able to do this mostly because it takes a lot of capabilities that were done by specialist aircraft and puts those capabilities on the fighter itself, allowing it to operate without having to call in a whole slew of support planes.
This is, in part, a reason the debate surrounding the F-35 has been so bitter. The plane is trying to fill a different role than any of its predecessors, rather than simply improving on older versions of the same thing. Previous generations of combat aircraft have been steady evolutionary advancements along the same track; each new plane until now has focused on going faster, farther, and higher than its predecessor.
The F-35 is trying to evolve in a different way. It won't be a great deal more powerful or maneuverable than the aircraft it replaces; rather, it is supposed to be a different kind of beast. The value or vulnerability of the F-35 isn't fully captured by watching Maverick and Goose zipping around the sky in Top Gun.
Whether or not the F-35 is worth its monster price tag is still an entirely different question. For starters, the question of what the F-35 does is entirely different from what the F-35 is supposed to do when used with other planes and ships and stuff. That's especially important because it yields some pretty big strategic implications. All of which will be covered in part two of this series.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan