This story is part two 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 one and three.
The world's most expensive defense contract, the F-35 program, is gearing up for full-speed production. As you might expect, a defense program that runs to an estimated trillion dollars over its expected lifetime of 50-plus years attracts a pretty sizable amount of criticism from a lot of corners. But for all the back and forth about the pros and cons of the program — it's either the best combat aircraft since the invention of powered flight or the biggest chunk of defense pork in history — there doesn't seem to be nearly as much talk about the thing itself.
To get a handle on what the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II really does, VICE News went down to Naval Air Station Patuxent River to talk with some of the test pilots and get their take on this whole thing. They're flying some of the early F-35s, harbingers of a wave of airplanes that will run to almost 3,000 units for the US Air Force, Navy, and Marines — plus a handful of close American allies including Israel, the UK, Japan, and Italy, the latter two the only other countries where it will be assembled.
There are different ways of thinking about whether the immense amount of money for the F-35 is worth it. The first is to ask what makes the F-35 different from other aircraft. Is it faster? Does it fly higher? Farther? Well, we already got to that part earlier, so let's ask a different question: What happens when you put the F-35 with others of its kind? Does it do anything particularly interesting? Or, what happens when you start using it with other kinds of gear? Can it do anything especially neat or noteworthy?
First, a very quick recap of what the F-35 does that's different. Sure, it's stealthy and all, but the big thing is that the F-35 packs a lot of the specialized reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and jamming gear that normally live on specialized aircraft, which are part of a class of planes called "enablers." Often, that means enablers are big planes, like converted commercial airliners.
"Fundamentally, the way that you're going to fight [with] this aircraft is different than the UK Tornado [an older type of strike aircraft], which was very kinetic," explained Royal Navy Commander Greg Smith, top UK F-35 program guy at Pax River. "This is stealth technology; you operate in a different manner — you avoid the problems."
On top of that, the F-35 does by all accounts a very, very good job of taking all that information from all those sensors, combining it, and presenting in a form useful to the pilot. This frees up the pilot to do a lot of important pilot things, like not getting shot down and shooting the other guy down instead. Fighter-bombers from earlier generations, like the F-15 and F-16, may be advanced in their own right, but don't do that so-called sensor fusion as well. Their pilots have to do a lot more, which is kind of texting while driving, which is not a good move unless you enjoy getting blown out of the sky.
The F-35 is pretty much the embodiment of a way of fighting first thought up by the Soviets in the 1980s. The gist of the idea is that advances in sensors, computers, and precision weapons change the way warfare is carried out. Not that long ago, the idea of sending a drone or stealth aircraft halfway around the world to hang out, wait for a high-ranking Islamic State leader to appear, and then whack him with an anti-tank missile was preposterously high-tech. But the ability to do that has changed a good chunk of pretty much everything about using airpower in conflicts.
In essence, it's fair to think of the F-35 not so much as a fighter with fancy electronics, but the other way round: as a super-sophisticated surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft that just so happens to be armed to the teeth — unlike the typical ISTAR (Information, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) planes, which tend to be lumbering things based on the passenger jet that just flew you from Newark to Albuquerque.
Nonetheless, for all its wonderful ISTAR and electronic warfare capabilities, the F-35 still isn't going to have as much capability and power as dedicated enabler aircraft. The first way to get around this fact is by sharing information between different F-35 aircraft.
An F-35 flying independently takes the sensor information and puts it all on a map for the pilot to look at. The effect of stitching together the input from the sensors of a whole bunch of F-35s is that, in effect, it gives each one the ability to see almost as far as they could if they were packing one of those great big antennas. It's still not what a dedicated aircraft can do, but it's a lot better than what current-generation planes like the F-15 can.
An F-35 from the Pax River test squadron prepares to launch from the deck of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). (Photo by Andrew McMurtrie Lockheed Martin/U.S. Navy)
Now, the counterpart to all this is something called "cooperative targeting." For example, a ship might get a request to fire one of its missiles off in some particular direction. The twist here is that the ship may not have any of the targeting information and or even the slightest idea what that missile is intended to go do. So the missile is fired toward the plane that requested it, and, once the missile gets close enough, the aircraft takes control of it, feeds it target information, and tells it where to go. Or it can point the missile further downrange and hand it off to yet another aircraft.
If you take these two things together — sharing a sensor picture and cooperative targeting — it means that if you have a lot of F-35 aircraft up in the sky, each of those pilots has an enormous sphere of influence. They can see stuff hundreds of miles away, way beyond visual range, and shoot at it with missiles also from hundreds of miles away. Each pilot stops acting like a guy in a plane shooting at stuff and becomes a sort of air traffic controller of death, picking up targets way the hell off in the distance, directing missiles to and fro, and steering them into targets.
This nifty trick becomes critical when you take into account the F-35's stealth features. Stealth design comes at a cost. The biggest cost is that a truly stealthy aircraft has to carry all of its weapons, payload, fuel, and whatnot internally. Older planes just put all that non-stealthy stuff on pylons attached to the wings, but that sticks out on radar like a sore thumb and would ruin the plane's stealth mojo. The problem is that carrying stuff internally means carrying much less.
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However, doing all this cooperative targeting jazz neatly avoids the problem by letting the stealthy aircraft remain stealthy, and getting all its missiles "shipped in" from aircraft that were never stealthy to begin with, and stayed well behind.
When combined, all the various information sharing and cooperative targeting tricks come together to create a very fundamental change in how one uses air power, particularly against air defense systems, especially in the opening days of a conflict.
Taking the idea a bit further, there's a huge advantage in being able to hide your reconnaissance and intelligence platforms generally. As Commander Greg Smith pointed out, when an aircraft carrier flies its radar aircraft, the E-2 Hawkeye, that sends out a pretty clear signal about where that very valuable ship is, because that E-2 plane is going to be more or less above the center of that carrier battle group. From there, all you have to do is look for the only thing that registers as longer than 1,000 feet, and, voilà, you've found the carrier. That would be gold for, say, Chinese or Russian fleets trying to locate the big juicy American target.
Thus, being able to carry out enabling tasks without the gigantic footprint of a traditional array of enablers is a really nice thing; it's like the difference between a frontal assault by a heavy armored brigade and a handful of Special Forces guys slinking in under cover of night.
Where all this blossoms from the unexpected into the truly shocking is at a larger scale. It's easy to forget that, although the US has had stealth technology for decades, more properly it's only the US Air Force that's had stealth all this time. But the Navy's and the Marines' F-35s will be flying from aircraft carriers, and that means stealth jets whose base can be moved to anywhere in the world pretty fast.
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Look at it this way: For every target an aircraft carrier wants to hit, particularly when the other guy's air defense systems are up and running, it needs to launch a whole slew of jets to accomplish a bunch of related missions. Airborne early warning radar, jammers, fighters, tankers for all those enablers and shooters — the list is long. Cutting that down to just the one or two jets that are going to be sneaking in and hitting stuff makes everyone's life much simpler. This means that the aircraft carrier can now engage a lot more targets at the same time, using the same number of aircraft.
It also means that, every time an aircraft carrier shows up nearby, the bad guys have to factor in the very real likelihood that the carrier group is sending stealthy aircraft in to conduct all manner of surreptitious reconnaissance. That's entirely unprecedented.
Take these different things together and it starts adding up to some major strategic differences. No carrier strike group has ever been able to carry out deep, invasive reconnaissance of sensitive targets. And have you ever heard of a case where you'd call upon the US Marine Corps to launch long-range airstrikes against heavily defended strategic targets on the first day of war?
And speaking of the Marines: Instead of just counting on the 10 giant super-carriers capable of launching big, complex strike formations to take on heavily defended targets, the US can now use the other nine amphibious assault ships that the Marines fly their decidedly non-stealthy AV-8 Harrier ground attack jets from. Substituting F-35 for them means the number of ships that can carry all that stealthy, ISTAR, electronic warfare, and strike capability to the front door of someone the US has beef with almost doubles.
How all these things are going to fold together and change the way that the US can and will project power is fodder for a much larger debate, because things get pretty complex at a strategic level. But there's one thing for sure: US allies flying the F-35 will need less American support for their own operations.
The US has been using stealth technology in combat since 1988, when F-117 jets bombed Panama, so it's really old news that going at war with the Americans means dealing with stuff you can't really see. (Not completely invisible, mind you, just really hard to find and kill.)
People know that a large coalition that involves the US will likely have stealth and a bunch of enablers, so all potential US allies basically have that stuff by proxy. Secondly, a lot of countries that have worked in partnership with the US military have grown fond of all the neat things that the seemingly bottomless US defense budget can provide.
"Just on a matter of scale, the way the UK would do something compared to the USAF or the US Navy, the number of assets and capability they've got is fundamentally different," said Royal Navy Commander Greg Smith. "We don't have all the enablers the US Air Force has. Clearly we operate with the USAF and the US Navy an awful lot ... but [the F-35] gives us the ability not to require so many of those enablers."
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So the Brits, who will fly their F-35s from carriers, have just gained that ability to do on their own a lot of the fancy stuff that they could do until now only with the Americans. If they want to carry out a deep stealth strike against, say, Argentina, they don't need the US to hold their hand to do it. Likewise, their contributions will become more important in any coalition, including one involving the US military.
So a whole bunch of countries can now operate at a much higher level, with greater strategic impact, independent of the US. 11 countries other than the US are currently participating in the program and are planning on getting their own complement of F-35 aircraft. To unpack the impact of that, let's look at that list.
We've got seven NATO countries: Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the United Kingdom. This will change the calculus of any fight involving NATO; Russia will be facing off against at least a few new operators of stealthy strike/reconnaissance capabilities in Europe alone.
Going to the Pacific, there are three future users: Australia, Japan, and South Korea. That has the Chinese scrambling in an attempt to make (and quite possibly copy) their own stealth fighter jet, to counter the advance in strategic capability the F-35 gives their regional adversaries.
In the Middle East, Israel's acquisition of the F-35 is, in some ways, just a continuation of its long-standing policy of maintaining a qualitative edge over its neighbors. But it also affects the power dynamic between Israel and Iran; the latter must be worried that there are now more options for an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.
These non-US operators of the F-35 can be divided into two subsets, each with its own strategic implications.
First off are the countries that will be getting the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) version, the F-35B, and have ships that will be able to launch and retrieve. Italy has a new assault carrier, roughly equivalent to those US amphibious assault ships. The Brits are about to launch their second Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier. Although smaller than the US's active and planned super-carriers at 65,000 tons versus 100,000, the UK ships will be about the size of current and planned Chinese and Russian aircraft carriers.
Meanwhile, the Italians launched their new flagship, the Cavour, in 2004, and have open orders for the F-35B variant, which may be able to operate from either the Cavour or the older Giuseppe Garibaldi. That said, there's a fair bit of instability surrounding these plans right now, so it might not be prudent to print the formal announcements quite yet.
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Beyond these two, there are some other far, far, less likely options out there. For instance, Japan, Australia, and South Korea all operate small carriers that, with a lot of work, could be used with the F-35B, though none of those countries have announced plans to get the STOVL variant or modify their ships. Then again, we're talking about 50-year or longer lifespans for the F-35, so it's always a future option.
Either way, it's worth noting that this means both the UK and Italy will soon have cutting-edge power projection capabilities, equaled only by the US and substantially better than the vast majority of the planet. These guys are moving to the head of the class.
The second subset of foreign F-35 operators comprises those that have to do with nukes. Again, the US has had stealth bombers for decades, so stealthy nuke delivery is taken for granted in some circles. However, three of the five NATO countries that are hosting shared nuclear weapons provided by the US are also in the F-35 program: Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. They are going to be getting the standard F-35 variant, the F-35A, which will be able to carry the B-61 free-fall bombs that those countries currently host.
In essence, within a few years, there will be US-owned nukes in three European countries that will have their host nations' names on them and will be able to be delivered by stealthy nuclear-strike aircraft.
Before anyone freaks out, it's vitally important to note that the paperwork for taking one of these nukes out for a spin has got to be absolutely prohibitive, so while the nuclear weapons are shared, it's pretty easy to imagine that their peacetime owner — the US — would be able to veto any use of those weapons, which means that, in practice, it doesn't really indicate an independent nuclear capability.
Which is entirely different from the UK. Right now, the nuclear missiles on British subs are US Trident missiles, with UK warheads. Both countries need to give the thumbs up before they can start nuking people, but the important part here is that the UK owns the warheads. Thus, it's entirely possible that the UK will be able to have stealthy, nuclear-capable strike aircraft and the nukes to use with them. So far, there are no plans for certifying either the STOVL F-35B (which the UK is getting) or the carrier-based F-35C as nuclear capable for the US; however, the UK is the top foreign partner in the F-35 program, so never say never.
Outside of NATO, Israel has its own nuclear weapons program, although details are sparse about whether the Israeli version, the F-35I, will be able to use nuclear weapons. But, again, even if it's not an announced capability today, that doesn't mean it's not on the board. Israel already has (unofficially, but it's an open secret) land- and submarine-based nukes, and adding nuclear capability to the F-35 means that Israel will be getting a very flexible, survivable nuclear deterrent — just in time for a budding Iranian nuclear program to start running.
Beyond that, it's worth pointing out that countries like Japan and South Korea don't currently have their own nuclear weapons programs, but are widely regarded as being nuclear capable. If you can make your own reactors and have a bunch of top-flight scientists sitting around with a bunch of plutonium, it's just a matter of time and inclination.
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Where all this gets crazy is when you consider that one particular country is in both smaller groups. The UK will not only have a pretty top-notch stealthy power projection capability, but will also have its own independent nuclear capability. To be absolutely clear, we're well off into the wilds on speculation at this point. It'd be pretty polite to just call this conjecture. But, if nothing else, it would explain why the UK is going to two carriers: it means they should always have one available. In the context of the UK's current debates about replacing all their nuclear missile subs, it means delivery of nukes from an F-35 will almost certainly come up in discussion.
All of this hypothesizing is aimed at making one point clear: The F-35 program is going to have some pretty major downstream strategic impacts. But, at this point, it's far, far too early to tell what the impact will be. It's like trying to figure out what effect Henry Ford's invention of automotive mass production would ultimately have on teenage pregnancy a half century later.
Moreover, aircraft evolve a great deal during a production run, especially now that the costs of developing a brand-new aircraft have become so harrowing.
Which brings us back around to the program as it stands today. It would be reckless not to mention the huge price tag of the program or the many legitimate concerns about the plane's reliability.
"Lots of people focus on the here and the now: 'Is the F-35, today, April 2016, performing to the standard we want it to?' Well of course it's not; it's still in test! People miss that," Smith said. "What can we do between now and whenever this goes out of service in 20, 30, 40, 50 years' time or whatever? This aircraft will be fundamentally different in 10 years' time to what it is now. The capability is just going to keep expanding, and you can react to world changes."
Taking the technological maturity of the plane and balancing that against future capabilities is a political decision. In that way, it's similar to the cost. It's obvious that buying a couple thousand aircraft is going to run quite a tab. The more worthwhile questions have to do with what each plane costs and, therefore, what other spending or capabilities are being skipped in order to buy that one particular aircraft. Again, that's getting into tolerance for risk, budget priorities, and how well your crystal ball works; all good topics, but topics for another day.
But now that production is beginning to kick into high gear, which, in a sense, makes questions about technological bugs and cost a bit beside the point. If the program is here to stay anyway, then the question is what the hell you're supposed to do with the plane, today, tomorrow, and half a century from now. The program is in all likelihood too far along to kill; the big question now is where it's headed.
It's important to note that the best plane in the world doesn't do a darn thing to the strategic balance if the engine won't start when you turn the key. Stay tuned for Part 3, when VICE News digs into the F-35's quirks, problems, and idiosyncrasies.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan
Photo via DVIDS