Related Video Above: F-35s to Europe
The F-35 is coming to Russia’s doorstep in a development likely to greatly expand and strengthen the US, European and NATO deterrence posture on the continent.
F-35s in Europe
Finland has now chosen the F-35 in large numbers, joining the growing list of F-35 member nations which now includes Switzerland alongside Italy, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, the UK and Poland.
This line-up of F-35 nations introduces a formidable combined fleet of networked 5th generation aircraft sufficiently positioned to achieve air superiority in any kind of great power air engagement on the European continent.
The deal is reportedly worth as much as $11billion and will include at least 64 new jets, a number expected to bring large strategic and tactical implications to the European continent.
There are certainly many reasons for how this might continue to change the deterrence and threat equation in Europe, many of which are of course quite well known.
The presence of large numbers of F-35s, capable of dispersed yet closely networked and interconnected operations, greatly expands any operational envelope for air operations.
Also, an international fleet of F-35 will not only bring the known capabilities of the jet to warfare as a larger force, but vastly increased information sharings, drone-like sensing ability and secure networking between F-35s from different nations.
F-35 Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL)
F-35s are engineered with an often discussed, yet highly impactful Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) which ensures seamless connectivity between F-35s of all member nations. The advantage of this is exponentially increased by virtue of the F-35s on board computing which can quickly process, organize and transmit key items of relevance arriving from otherwise disparate pools of information.
Perhaps an F-35 uses long-range sensors to find a group of approaching enemy fighters, drones, bombers or even groups of advancing ground troops moving to close in for attack? If a Finnish F-35 closed in on Northern Russia and made key discoveries, F-35s from other member-nations could arrive to support the operation.
An ability to instantly share time-sensitive data in real time across disaggregated formations can assure that the surveillance and attack area of operation is positioned to achieve and sustain a significant combat advantage.
There is also a firepower dynamic, as F-35s in closer proximity can operate with longer dwell time over target areas without needing to refuel or possibly carry more ordnance. Should targeting specifics quickly transmit from Finnish F-35s in close proximity to Russian threats, navigational, targeting and mission specifics could be picked up by member-nation F-35 allies such as Poland or Switzerland which might also be within range.
There is also a substantial basing advantage. As larger numbers of US and allied F-35 are produced and arriving with member nations, greater numbers of US and allied F-35s could potentially base in strategically advantageous positions such as in Poland, Finland or Switzerland, areas well within striking distance of the Russian border.
Many remember the years of developmental turbulence associated with the F-35 over the course of the last few decades, and certainly even more people are likely familiar with the current controversies surrounding sustainment, costs and political disagreement. However, along side these debates, about which there is much to say, there is another question which could all too easily be overlooked. Simply put…why are so many countries buying the F-35? Why is that list expanding to such a large degree so quickly?
The just announced addition of Finland, coupled with Switzerland’s recent choice of the F-35 and the ongoing multi-billion dollar Japanese F-35 buy all strongly suggest there are a number of extremely impactful, and potentially cost-saving, reasons why a growing number of nations are joining the F-35 consortium.
Clearly the answer includes a number of key variables, the most significant of which is likely related to capability, performance and its global superiority as a 5th-generation multi-role fighter.
At the same time, the greater the number of countries acquiring the F-35, the more streamlined and less expensive the sustainment and manufacturing supply chain becomes. It is certainly well known that larger volume can lower the price per plane, yet there are also substantial sustainment advantages fundamental to the equation as new customers expand the supply chain, manufacturing infrastructure and availability of key parts, upgrades and technologies important to maintenance.
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The largest reason, however, is quite likely due to performance. It was about a decade ago when now Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall served as the Pentagon’s Acquisition Executive, when the F-35 program seemed to “get back on track” in a substantial and impactful way. The effort evolved into an extremely successful acquisition effort and, of much greater importance, delivered paradigm-changing, unprecedented advantages. The growing number of F-35 customer nations is evidence enough of its value, yet there are a few other essential variables to consider. One, quite simply, is pilots.
I recall watching developmental testing of the F-35C aboard the USS Nimitz in 2014 earlier in the trajectory of the program. I spoke with many pilots on the flight deck about the performance and technological sophistication of the F-35s.
In more recent years, I have spoken many more times to F-35 pilots with the US military services. These pilots, it seems to me, are perhaps the most credible and significant source of objective input regarding the plane. Most of all, a majority of the F-35 pilots I’ve talked to have years of experience flying 4th-generation jets such as the F-15, F-16 and F-18.
It is tough to envision a more credible source of input than from these kinds of experienced pilots who have a feel for sensing, targeting, weapons guidance, maneuverability, air-to-air combat capability and overall handling and flight path stability.
The verdict is in. Pilots “love” the F-35 for many reasons. The level of computer autonomy makes it “easy to fly,” they all say. This is particularly relevant when it comes to the F-35B which needs to conduct a vertical take-off and landing on amphibious assault ships.
Advanced computer algorithms can account for wind, sea-state and altitude descent specifics to essentially “assist” or help somewhat autonomously “land” the jet, making the process smoother, more seamless, more efficient and of course more secure. Much of this is enabled by advanced software referred to as “Delta Flight Path,” a technology which helps all the F-35 variants with navigation, flight trajectory and landing in particular.
Prior to landing on a carrier, F-35s take a hard-left “bank” turn to align with the deck of the ship. From that point forward, they are focused upon a steady “glide slope” onto the carrier deck looking at the famous “fresnel lens,” or light showing them the accuracy of their slope down onto the carrier.
Computers can now help pilots improve this process to both increase security but also increase landing efficiency and prevent aircraft from needing to make another pass at the deck. While there are night-vision technologies and other factors intended to help nighttime landings, an ability to stabilize F-35B and F-35C ship landings brings a substantial operational advantage in inclement weather such as snow, fog or heavy rain obscuring vision. Not only that, a steadying ability can help pilots land during heavy winds and turbulent or uneven sea states.
This being said, it would of course be far too limiting to cite landing and maneuverability alone as a defining or paradigm-changing attribute of the F-35.
F-35 Quickness of Kill
The largest advantage, one could easily argue, pertains to the ability to achieve paradigm-changing “quickness of kill” in combat. F-35 sensors such as its Distributed Aperture System and Electro-Optical Targeting system can not only find enemy targets at ranges where they are not themselves detected, but can pinpoint and identify terrain and targeting details with much greater accuracy.
Part of the jet’s computing includes what’s known as Mission Data Files, an on board data library of catalogued threat information enabling near instant target identification. Clearly this impact speed of kill and affords the jet a substantial tactical advantage in combat in terms of reducing latency and expediting an accurate and precise “sensor-to-shooter” cycle. The largest element of these technical leaps forward, according to numerous pilots over a period of many years, lies in its “sensor fusion” capacity.
On-board computing is able to take incoming data from a variety of otherwise disparate information sources such as targeting, navigation, altitude and essential avionics, compare them to one another, integrate them and present a unified, informed picture to pilots on a single screen. While the term easing the “cognitive burden” can often be overused, the reality is pilots can focus much more fully and intensely upon complex decision-making variables requiring human judgement and unique cognitive faculties without being encumbered by needing to perform procedural and data analysis functions easily done much faster by computers.
Finally, weapons and attack simply cannot be overlooked. While as a multi-role fighter, the F-35 is often underrecognized for its drone-like sensing ability and ISR capacity, yet it is known to be extremely lethal.
Considering its speed, maneuverability, air-to-ground precision weaponry and 25mm cannon, the aircraft introduced new tactical advantages for close air support. At the same time, the plane is architected with the technical instructure such that it will consistently and quickly modernize with software upgrades in coming years. This means when new weapons, such as hypersonics, lasers or even more precise, longer range all-weather bombs such as the Stormbreaker arrive, they can quickly be added.
The jet was built with a mind to “continuous modernization” such that it can strive to remain superior into the 2070s and beyond. New weapons will arrive, sensors and computing will improve, paradigm-changing weapons guidance technologies will emerge, countermeasures will be added, all making the jet increasingly become much more lethal in warfare. The F-35 will also introduce new advantages for the Pentagon’s nuclear deterrence posture as software will allow the F-35A to carry the B61-Mod 12 nuclear bomb.
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If there were other jets operating with these kinds of advantages, then fewer new F-35 customers might be emerging. That is not the case. Is the F-35 already the premier chosen jet of the free world. The answer seems to be yes.
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.