F35-What is it like to fly and fight in a jet ?

At a discussion hosted by the Mitchell Institute in Washington on November 7, 2016, pilots from the US Air Force and US Marine Corps, including Major General Glen Van Herck, commander of the Air Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base (himself a B-2 stealth bomber pilot also qualified in the F35) described their experience of flying fifth-generation  fighters.

F35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and the Lockheed Martin F22 Raptor

F35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and the Lockheed Martin F22 Raptor 


F35 A pilot Lieutenant Colonel Scott Gunn, US Air Force, described the difference between a fourth-generation fighter, such as the F-15 Eagle or F-16 Fighting Falcon, and a fifth-generation fighter as comparable to the difference between a flip phone and an iPhone: “Multiple technologies fused together in a single piece of equipment. The F-35 is a sensor processing machine that just happens to have an aircraft wrapped round it.” Sensor fusion includes the F-35’s passive sensors that, Gunn continued, “suck in the ’tons [electrons from an emitting threat radar], then the radar captures a SAR [synthetic aperture radar] map. I get a map of what this thing [detected by the passive sensor] looks like. If I see a little bright spot, I point the EO/IR [electro optical/infrared] sensor at that and can see [in more detail] what it looks like, from a long stand-off range.”
This enables an F35 to find things that are unallocated, “like SAMs [surface to- air missiles] that are long-range threats. Fourth-generation fighters can’t fly close enough to find them effectively.
With enough [networked] F-35s [in the area], each one provides a piece of the puzzle. That’s the beauty of networks as they evolve.”
Other participants can share the picture. However awesome the speed, manoeuvrability and weapons of fifth generation fighters may be, what matters most is their sensors and the ability to fuse and share the information obtained from them.


US Marine Corps F35 B pilot Lieutenant Colonel David Berke previously flew F/A-18 Hornets and served two exchange tours with the US Air Force flying F-16s and F-22s. When he first flew the F-22, he said he was enamoured by how powerful the airplane was, but he soon realised its sensor and information fusion capabilities were more important: “Without information, the fastest airplane out there is the first to die.” He said the differences between fourth-generation and fifth-generation fighters are very stark: “The F-22 and F-35 are more like each other than they are like anything else.” He described the F-35 asa very innovative airplane that has inherent plasticity to evolve. Berke has worked on initiatives for integrating fourth-generation and fifth generation fighters, flying F-22s in a six-month test programme: “The two simplest ways to measure a fighter’s effectiveness are [by] its survivability and lethality. For a fourth-generation fighter, the presence of fifth-generation fighters improves the two things exponentially. Their ability to survive increases, because a fifth-generation platform provides information they cannot get on their own and from places where they cannot go. Fifth-generation makes fourth-generation airplanes more lethal.” He cautioned that while fourth-generation airplanes also enhance fifth-generation aircraft, there will be a time when fourth generation aircraft simply cannot operate.
The US Marines Corps will fly F-35Bs off the US Navy’s big deck amphibious assault ships, a major advance in capabilities over today’s AV-8B Harrier IIs, in the words of Lt Col Berke: “It is infinitely, exponentially, generationally beyond anything that airplane can do.” Berke said the F-35B is critical for the US Marine Corps: “It can operate anywhere. The F-35B opens up opportunities to operate where Marines could never operate before and in ways not available before. This includes operating way inland, in conjunction with the [Bell-Boeing] MV-22 [Osprey tilt-rotor]and the [Sikorsky] CH-53K [heavy-lift helicopter].”
The F-35B’s ability to function as a sensor platform and transmit a fused picture of the battle space to other aircraft, ships and ground units is according to Berke a contribution difficult to overstate: “The F-35 combines information [from multiple sensors] in environments where we currently operate and in places the joint force currently cannot operate or will not be able to operate five years in the future [because of ever more capable threats].”


Major Andrew Stolee, a chief F-22 instructor at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base, teaches air warfare doctrine. Not going to the fight alone is one doctrine, and one that includes fifth-generation fighters. Major Stolee underlined that the revolutionary capabilities of fifth-generation fighters are not just about information, but also include stealth and the seamless display of information to the human being that has to make a decision: “Information is now immediately displayed to people that are in aircraft in the AO [area of operations] who can immediately apply some sort of effect, either kinetic or non-kinetic.” Major Stolee is currently developing joint tactics for the F-22 and F35 and already recognises the higher demand placed on the F-22 to make decisions and integrate information. Explaining the demand, Stolee said on-board systems increase the speed of decision-making and the information provided delegates decision-making to individual F-22 pilots, because they see the same picture, operate in places others cannot and focus on the mission while the actual machine is collecting information: “Fifth-generation fighters shift roles very quickly. F-22s can go in and kick in the door against advanced IADS [integrated air defence systems] with robust SAM threats and lots of airplanes. F-22s start a mission undertake the air superiority role to ensure hostile aircraft are not in the way of F35 s finding something, with F35 pilots focused on the air-to-ground role. They can shift roles swiftly, so F35 s are protecting F-22s while the F-22 pilots look at their SAR, then switch back to the opposite role, perhaps with F-35s attacking from a different direction.” Major Stolee’s bottom line: “The symbiotic relationship between the F-22 and F-35 will only continue to grow.”

Van Herck

According to Major General Glen Van Herck, the battle space is going to change faster and faster. He provided his own insight to the F35 in that arena: “The F35 is incredibly lethal with multiple options forair to-air and air-to-ground weapons and incredibly survivable due to its low observable design.” He described the improvements in stealth technology used on the F35 compared to the B-2, his previous mount, as “just incredible”. Major General Van Herck’s bottom line: “Connected battle space from fifth generation fighters is just crucial.”All of the observations and points listed are applicable to all F-35 international customers, who today, together with the schoolhouse at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, are working to develop effective tactics, techniques and procedures. However, the importance of sensors and networks – more than traditional speed and manoeuvrability – for future air combat comes across loud and clear.

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