Video Above: F-35s to Europe
As the F-35 blasts onto the scene in greater numbers, some might be of the mind to wonder how the Joint Strike Fighter will stay relevant, current and cutting edge into the 2070s given the pace of technological change and rapid arrival of new technologies.
The advent of 6th-Generation aircraft and explosive growth in AI has generated a technological climate in which breakthrough systems come to fruition on a much faster timetable.
Things like advanced computer simulations, digital engineering and of course cyber-related information processing kinds of innovations are reshaping the landscape quickly. New sensors, weapons, information processing and even new stealth configurations are likely to arrive faster than expected.
The answer is that engineers working on the F-35 over the past decade have built a specific modernization plan into the F-35 with a mind to keeping the jet cutting edge and hopefully superior well into the 2070s.
How is this possible?
While there will undoubtedly be new innovations when it comes new kinds of airframe configurations and potential breakthroughs in realm of stealth engineering, yet the majority of paradigm-changing innovations are likely to arrive in the areas of computing, sensing, avionics, mission systems and weapons guidance technology.
Furthermore, it seems conceivable that many significant advances in the realm of stealth could be incorporated into an F-35 airframe such as thermal signature management, coating materials or even various construction techniques.
Essentially, the basic configuration of the airframe may not necessarily need to change much in order for the aircraft to surge into new dimensions of technological capability.
Years ago, the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office outlined a “continuous development” roadmap for the F-35 intended for the clear purpose of integrating new technologies, weapons, sensors and computing into the aircraft as they become available.
This program, pioneered years ago, has already yielded significant results, particularly in the realm of software. Former Air Force Acquisition Executive William Roper once told reporters that “software” may determine who “wins the next war.”
There is ample evidence to support this kind of thinking, particularly when it comes to the F-35, given that each new increment or “software drop” vastly expands the capability of the jet.
This pertains to information flow and management of otherwise disparate pools of accumulated sensor information, something which essentially takes the F-35s “sensor fusion” architecture to another breakthrough level.
Software enhancements also radically increase the weapons envelope for the F-35, as each drop brings technical interfaces necessary to fire new weapons. The emerging Block IV drop, for example, will give the jet a breakthrough ability to fire the Stormbreaker weapon, an air dropped bomb able to track targets in all weather and attack at ranges up to 40 miles.
The Stormbreaker uses a tri-mode seeker using millimeter wave, infrared or RF and laser targeting to track and destroy targets. Many weapons now benefit from a two-way data link such that they can maneuver or adjust in flight. The Block III software drop similarly widen the weapons arsenal for the fighter jet.
What is relevant about this for the future is that software enhancements are increasingly being looked at and pursued in more a continuous flow, meaning they will not be spread apart in “increments” separate by many years.
Integrating new software, which brings the very significant impact of adding new weapons, improving the data library and introducing paradigm-changing new computer processing speeds, will likely happen on a more continuous and much faster timeline.
Technically speaking, this is enabled by the use of a common technical infrastructure using common IP protocols and standards architected for interoperability, meaning designed to quickly embrace or accommodate new weapons, sensors, computers and electronics as they become available.
These technological phenomena are likely to engender a continuous modernization environment such that the F-35 could well be an entirely different or newly enabled and much more capable war platform 20, 30 even 40 years from now. That is the intent.
Aircraft for the “Free World”
The growing international demand for F-35 raises interesting questions about the performance of the aircraft thus far, its technological maturation, prospects for future growth and the idea that it could essentially be an “aircraft for the free world.”
That sounds a bit like an overstatement perhaps, however the pace of increased interest in the jet, and the scope of international acquisitions tell a very significant story.
As more F-35 arrive, existing customers seem to show interest in acquiring greater numbers. Some customers include the U.S., UK, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Canada. This group has in recent years been joined by six Foreign Military Customers to include Israel, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Belgium and Singapore.
More recently, Switzerland has become an F-35 customer to fortify its “armed neutrality” deterrence posture and countries such as Japan are now making large, multi-billion dollar F-35 buys. This is something likely to very substantially reframe the deterrence equation and power balance in the Pacific, given that the U.S. is likely interested in finding more basing opportunities in the Pacific for its growing fleet of F-35s.
There are likely many reasons for the fast-paced F-35 expansion, a primary one simply being pilot experience. For more than 10-years, F-35 pilots training on the jet talk about how it is “easy to fly” and “smooth.”
Advanced levels of computer automation enable something called Delta Flight Path, a software technology which somewhat autonomously helps pilots descend into challenging landings on the deck of carriers and amphibs. This kind of technological application is particularly significant when it comes to a vertical landing of an F-35B on an amphibious assault vehicle.
Networking breakthroughs continue to exponentially increase the impact of a collective, multinational F-35 force, as the 5th generation jets can easily share data with one another across dispersed formations using the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL).
Beyond this, recent innovations are increasingly enabling F-35s to connect in flight with 4th-generation aircraft and other platforms in a way that reshapes the tactical equation when it comes to blanketing an area with surveillance, sharing target information or coordinating attacks across a large geographical envelope.
A NATO, European or even Pacific F-35 force, when combined into an interwoven international warfare coalition, brings enormous improvements to the deterrence equation and potential combat interoperability.
Far beyond ease of flight and networking, the information dominance elements of the F-35 change the paradigm for pilots who used to need to simultaneously look at multiple different screens to absorb critical mission information such as targeting, navigation, sensing or even altitude.
For years now, all of these otherwise disparate pools of data are now gathered, organized, integrated and presented to pilots on a single, clear screen. This phenomenon is often referred to as “easing the cognitive burden,” which simply means time consuming procedural function and data analysis can, to a very large extent, be done autonomously by advanced F-35 computers.
The enables pilots to expend their energy applying those key attributes unique to human cognition that expedite and improve decision making. The combat implications of this kind of technological improvement are seemingly limitless. The jet is designed to continue to evolve along this trajectory, meaning it can continually improve as new algorithms and technologies arrive.
A former Air Force Chief Scientist told me several years ago that the F-35s “sensor fusion” does in fact represent early iterations of AI. Clearly the realm of the possible in this arena is progressing so quickly that there are likely to be more anticipated and more unanticipated breakthroughs. The idea with the F-35 is to build a jet with common technical standards such that it can keep pace with this.
An added bonus to this equation is the fact that experienced U.S. F-35 pilots are continuing to train and prepare emerging pilots for the task of “flying” an F-35, something which quickens the pace of the learning curve and expedites international deployments for the jet.
“We engage in collaboration and cooperation to help them bring on their aircraft in a way that takes advantage of the lessons learned we’ve had. We have decades of operating 5th gen aircraft but this is the first time when these nations have had a 5th gen aircraft,” Gen. Kenneth Wilsback, Commander, Pacific Air Forces, told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in a special video interview as far back as last year.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.