The F-35 is armed with a 25mm cannon, flies with a 5th-Generation stealth configuration, attacks with an entirely new generation of air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons, yet its most defining characteristic may ultimately lie in the often cited realm of “sensor fusion.”
This sensibility seemed to emerge as a consistent point of emphasis from an interview I did recently with three F-35 pilots. Lockheed Martin F-35 Test Pilot Chris “Worm” Spinelli, who spent 24 years in the Air Force, told me the aircraft is defined by “data integration.”
F-35 Data Integration
“For me, the biggest difference I've seen between flying the fourth-generation F-16, which is what I previously flew, and my few hours in the F-35 is its data integration and data management capabilities. It allows extreme situational awareness–more than any other platform that we've generated, at least that I've flown,” Spinelli said.
The merits of such a technological process are certainly self-evident to be certain, yet “sensor fusion” also introduces interesting tactical dynamics which might easily be overlooked. The F-35’s turn pilots into “true tacticians.” Tony “Brick” Wilson, who now works for Lockheed Martin as the Chief of Fighter Flight Operations (F-35 Test Pilot), told me in an F-35 pilot interview special.
“Applying the system of sensor fusion reduces pilot workload and allows the pilots to have a situational “bubble” so that they're more than just a pilot and they're more than a sensor manager. They're true tacticians. The fact that the pilot has the spare capacity increases survivability and makes them more lethal,” Wilson said.
Fighter jets operate in alignment with a host of distinct and manageable variables such as altitude, navigational trajectory, speed and a need to gather and process time-sensitive data and weapons information.
F-35s are armed with a next-generation suite of EW weapons, upgraded air-to-air attack missiles, long-range targeting sensors, mission data files or a threat library for enemy target “identification;” sensor fusion “declutters” all of this, Monessa “Siren” Balzhiser, a Lockheed Martin F-35 Production and Training PIlot, told me in the interview.
“The great thing about [the display] is you can control what you see and what you don't. You can declutter and put everything on it that you need, so you're seeing an advanced picture of friendlies, air-to-air and air-to-ground stats, and navigation points. It’s all encompassed in one display, which is why I say it becomes a matter of how well a pilot can process all that data, because it's a lot of data and it's always dynamic. It's always giving you real-time information from every single sensor in the jet,” Balzhiser said.
F-35 Advanced Electronically Scanned Array
When it comes to destroying an enemy, an F-35 Advanced Electronically Scanned Array can see a threat object, a long-range infrared targeting sensor can produce a rendering of it, an on-board threat library database can positively ID the target and then precision-guided weapons can strike.
The end of this process ultimately comes to a simple “decision,” or point at which the pilot needs to act quickly and decisively.
“When I first got into the F-35 and even still today, the biggest, game-changing difference that I've seen specifically for the person in the cockpit, the “decision-maker,” the pilot, is the F-35’s fusion and integration of all of the different sensors from the aircraft. It brings together a holistic picture that's quite amazing. This was never, never seen before on any fourth-generation platform,” Spinelli said.
The fusion process is ultimately the intended by-product of advanced computing. A former Air Force Chief Scientist told me while serving a few years back that the F-35s sensor fusion is in fact an early iteration of AI. Advanced computer algorithms perform a wide series of automated functions, meaning many procedural analysis tasks can be performed without needing human intervention.
This not only eases the so-described “cognitive burden” placed upon the pilots to free them up for more important tasks requiring human cognition, but also independently compares separate pools of incoming data to one another to draw conclusions.
This is how AI-enabled systems work, meaning massive volumes of gathered or incoming sensor data can be bounced off of or analyzed in relation vast, or seemingly limitless amounts of information in seconds to solve problems, draw concussions and organize a host a variables in terms of how they fit together, integrate or simply influence one another.
Speed and altitude, for example, will impact both navigation and weapons targeting. Threat data can determine closing speed or drive decisions about which weapon might be optimal for a particular specific threat. AI-enabled computing can perform many of these functions autonomously, based in large measure upon comparing variables against existing information and precedents set in prior instances to make recommendations to a human decision-maker.
“It's super, super, super easy to fly. It's made easy to fly for a reason, because of all the management you have to do in the cockpit,” Wilson told me.
F-35 v F/A-18, F-16, F-15EX
With all of the discussion, debate and criticism swirling around the F-35 regarding its long term maintenance challenges, operating and sustainment costs and logistical complexities, many might be inclined to wonder just how much different is an F-35 from an advanced, upgraded 4th Generation fighter like an F/A-18, F-16 or even the massively reworked F-15EX.
Is the F-35 margin of difference and superiority so sufficient to justify any concerns about long-term costs?
Of course as more F-35s get built, costs decrease and the ability of an F-35 to perform missions which require many 4th-gen jets, seem to paint a different financial picture than critics have maintained.
Cost are clearly something Lockheed and the Pentagon are working on, reportedly with significant success. Combined with the known cost savings of needing fewer jets to perform missions which typically need a large number of 4th-gen fighters, money is now being saved through Lockheed and Air Force efforts to streamline and uptick production to substantially lower the price per plane.
However, what about an examination based purely upon performance? Just how much better is an F-35?
Why not ask those in position to know? I spoke with three F-35 pilots who have years of experience flying both 4th Generation aircraft as well as the F-35. Each of the pilots offered a unique and experienced window into just how different it is to operate an F-35 in a war scenario.
The pilots’ comments aligned along several key themes to include sensing, data fusion, maneuverability and mission intelligence data, among other things.
F-35 Beyond Line-of-Sight
It would be tough not to view the ability to see, attack and destroy at beyond line of sight undetectable ranges as a massive advantage unique to an F-35, something female F-35 pilot Monessa “Siren” Balzhiser, F-35 Production and Training Pilot, Lockheed Martin, told me in the interview.
“The F-35 has a magnificent radar that allows you to shoot beyond visual range before any enemy would even detect you. So that’s a huge advantage with the fifth-generation fighter,” she said. Balzhiser described this in terms of a “first-shot, first-kill” advantage.
Beyond being able to attack beyond line-of-sight range, when it comes to the possibility that an F-35 has to engage in more of a close-in fight, its sensors offer newer kinds of positioning data.
F-35 Tactical Air Advantage
F-35 test pilot Chris “Worm” Spinelli spent 24 years in the Air Force flying fighter jets such as the F-22 and F-16 before joining Lockheed. He told me that F-35 technology gives pilots an entirely new understanding of where they are in the air in relation to an enemy - something which determines life or death in air-to-air combat.
“In an air-to-air engagement, with a fourth-generation fighter, you're firing and then maneuvering to help survive a follow-up attack from the enemy aircraft and I can tell you personally, from my own experiences of fighting in the Raptor F-22 and in the F-16, it was very frustrating trying to see. Quite honestly, you never even see [the enemy aircraft], or know what's going on,” Spinelli said.
Spinelli said the F-35 generates an entirely different “Tactical Air” picture or “mental model” for pilots needing to know their surroundings in air warfare.
“In a fourth-generation fighter, you have to mentally build that model and then try to make decisions. Of course, that can be challenging depending on how dense the threat environment is regarding both air and ground threats or other threats that may be out there. This is in contrast to an F-35, where you're seeing a much larger picture, informed by offshore sources as well, and you're seeing it from your own platform,” Spinelli said.
Winning in the air is still, to a large extent, correctly described by the famous former fighter pilot Col. John Boyd’s “OODA Loop” terminology. Through “Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action,” pilots who can complete the decision “loop” cycle faster than an adversary … destroy their enemies in the air. Speeding up, streamlining and exponentially improving the OODA Loop process are arguably the most defining elements of F-35 superiority.
Spinelli’s F-35 piloting experience, which of course draws upon the sensor data processing speed and data fusion of the aircraft, entirely aligns in concept with Boyd’s OODA Loop.
“You are only as good as the knowledge and information you have, so that to me is one of the big differences. The F-35 enables decision-making that allows you to make hopefully the correct or appropriate tactical decision as the situation dictates…. and then be able to execute it in the timeline that allows the best probability for your attack to succeed versus the enemy’s attack,” Spinelli told me.
F-35 Sensor Fusing
This knowledge, or “Tactical Air” picture, as described by Spinelli, is brought to life through the often discussed technological synergy and information “fusing” in an F-35.
“Sensor fusion,” as its called, takes otherwise disparate or seemingly separate, unrelated pools of information, performs analyses and organizes it onto a single screen for the pilot. Essentially, pilots don’t have to look at, analyze and compare different sensor systems to get an integrated picture, the aircraft’s computer does that.
“When you look at the radar for the F-35, the electronic warfare (EW) system and then of course the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) combining it all together, that to me was the biggest difference between the F-35 and the legacy F-16s or F-18s,” Spinelli said.
Interestingly, all of the data fusion reduces noise in the cockpit, something which better enables pilots to focus on the most pressing things in front of them.
Tony “Brick” Wilson, a former U.S. Navy F/A-18 pilot who has also spent a lot of time flying the carrier-launched F-35C, is well positioned to compare 4th to 5th gen aircraft.
F-35 Cockpit Communications & Sensor Fusion
“One of the biggest differences that jumps out is how quiet it is in the cockpit. Depending on what the threats are, a lot of the errors that may be made while airborne are predominantly due to misheard comms, either not hearing a crucial piece of information or missing a crucial piece of information,” Wilson, who now works for Lockheed Martin as the Chief of Fighter Flight Operations (F-35 Test Pilot), told me.
Part of the decrease in noise and distraction, Wilson explained, is due to the extent to which individual systems are gathered, organized, streamlined in a collective or integrated fashion.
“In the F-35, we carry all of our sensor suites all the time. Couple that with sensor fusion and you have the opportunity to listen to some of the engagements, but it's still very quiet because that sensor fusion is presenting the information to the pilot in such a manner that a lot of comms is not needed,” Wilson said.
Overall, while one might not wish to oversimplify, an ability to find, see and destroy enemy targets without being seen or destroyed .. determines life or death in air combat. Given this simple equation, all three pilots seemed to agree that perhaps the greatest advantage of the F-35 is in fact … “sensor fusion.”
“The biggest difference between fourth-generation fighters for me was with the fourth generation, I was always managing all the different systems, from electronic warfare to the weapons to the radar to any kind of targeting pod, any kind of sensor I had. I was 100% focused on making sure they were all integrated within my own cockpit in the fourth generation…..Whereas what I've seen in the F-35 is that it's all done for you,” she told me.
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.