A History of the Program
To understand the F-35 as it exists today, it’s valuable to examine the origins of the program. In the early 1990’s, the United States Department of Defense launched a tri-service combat aircraft recapitalisation program called the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The intent of the program was to leverage recent major investments by the U.S. in technology, introduce true service interoperability and achieve economies of commonality and scale as legacy combat aircraft fleets were to be replaced. The ongoing U.S. National Security strategy to require coalition based operations had also revealed significant capability gaps between the equipment utilised by U.S. and allied air forces.
Component Commanders were impacted by these shortfalls and a decision was made to allow participation by selected allied nations in the development and procurement of the JSF. Seven additional NATO countries (U.K., Netherlands, Italy, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Turkey) and key NATO partner Australia were asked by the U.S. to join the program following the contract award in October of 2001. These relationships were codified in formal bi-lateral Government to Government agreements for the initial stage.
The joint capability and industrial tenets established by the F-35 Program are a precursor to the Smart Defence Initiative embraced by the Alliance in 2012. From their public position on the topic, NATO has stated that “… the other Allies must reduce the gap with the U.S. by equipping themselves with capabilities that are deemed to be critical, deployable and sustainable, and must demonstrate political determination to achieve that goal. There must be equitable sharing of the defence burden. Smart defence is NATO’s response to this.” The world financial crisis since 2008 serves to reinforce the value, efficiency, and priority of the F-35 Program in executing this NATO initiative to confront crisis management in the immediate future.
The F-35 will allow other NATO Allies to close the current capability gap with the U.S. Based on the revolutionary introduction of stealth on the F-117 and the subsequent validation of its effectiveness in operations, the U.S. adopted a fighter procurement philosophy that is limited to stealth aircraft. The F-22 was the first platform to be developed under this precept and established the characteristics of a 5th generation aircraft: advanced stealth, integrated sensor fusion, network centric operations, fighter performance, and advanced sustainment. The F-35 capitalises on this investment, utilising many of the technologies created for the F-22 while improving upon them with a decade worth of lessons learned and advances in computing power. Unique structural design characteristics were optimised across three variants to allow the F-35 to operate from land bases, austere environments, and carriers. These design features enable the F-35 to meet requirements not found on any other fighter:
Go deep into a double digit Surface to Air Missile (SAM) threat environment to destroy moving and mobile targets through the weather while outnumbered by advanced fighters equipped with advanced air-to-air weapons. Perform the mission from any base and at a lower cost than legacy programs.
To achieve these goals, the F-35 program pursued a more highly integrated NATO industrial base to maximise the capabilities of the Alliance. The international design and manufacturing aspects of the program, however, diverge from traditional offset mentalities, which are in comparison inefficient, costly, and historically limited to only those airplanes being purchased by that specific nation. The F-35 program introduced a new economic model based on ‘competitive best value’ where industrial concerns in each of the partner countries were allowed to compete and win work on F-35. As long as competitive cost and quality standards are maintained, the industries of the partner nations are allowed to supply parts for each aircraft produced. Significant outreach work was done by the US industry team supported by the various US agencies to help align the world class capabilities of the NATO industrial base with JSF opportunities. All eight partner countries produced parts flown on the first test airplane and continue to produce components today.
Current Program Status
With the test fleet now surpassing 5,000 total flights, confidence in the maturity of the program is intensifying as the typical technical problems faced by a developmental program of this size have been resolved as they have arisen. While risk remains in the program, it is expected that emerging issues will continue to be solved as their predecessors were.
Significant numbers of aircraft have been produced as well. To date, 235 tails have either been delivered or are on order. The first partner country, the United Kingdom, is operating three training jets at Eglin Air Base. The second partner country, the Netherlands, has two aircraft flying that will be used for Operational Test & Evaluation. The common training facilities, established first at Eglin AFB and coming online at Luke AFB in 2013, embody the principles of NATO’s Connected Forces Initiative, providing “overarching collective training so that Allies can come together and be ready for any eventuality” and “better use of technology [as] a key means to facilitate the ability of Allied and partner forces to work together”. By 2018, 416 F-35s are projected to be delivered to NATO countries with an estimated 49 aircraft operating in Europe.
Backbone of Next Generation NATO Operations
Eight of the nine F-35 partner nations are members of NATO and the aircraft will be the backbone of future air operations. The F-35 will provide capabilities throughout NATO that are currently uniquely held by the U.S. In Operations Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Odyssey Dawn, the denied access missions were conducted by the U.S. stealth platforms F-117 and B-2. With the F-35, the ability to penetrate advanced enemy Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) will be extended to this core function of NATO.
The coalition force has additionally relied on the EA-18G Growlers of the United States Navy to provide Electronic Attack (EA) against the SAM systems. With the F-35, high gain EA missions can be executed by multiple nations with their indigenous capability. The possession of advanced stealth and EA by a large number of NATO countries will significantly increase the effectiveness of a coalition across a wide range of crisis management operations.
Unlike its 5th generation brethren, the F-22, the F-35 was designed from the outset to bring these capabilities while also being interoperable across a coalition of air power. Two networks are core to this operability: the Link-16 and the new Multi-Function Advanced Datalink (MADL). These data links will allow the F-35 to communicate with all current and future NATO assets. The Link-16 connection is currently utilised by the existing platforms fielded by NATO and will allow F-35 to integrate seamlessly into the coalition force structure. MADL will complement the current networks with NATO’s first high bandwidth, low probability of detect and intercept connection. The fundamental design features of MADL will enable all NATO F-35s in a deployed coalition to communicate within an Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2AD) environment.
NATO operations in a permissive environment such as Afghanistan will see benefits as well from the addition of the F-35. With its impressive sensor suite, net centric design, and ability to carry more than 18,000 lbs of payload when loaded externally, the F-35 can be thought of as a 5th generation Strike Eagle: the advanced avionics of an F-22 combined with the range payload that nearly matches that of an F-15E. This allows the F-35 to shape a crisis throughout the conflict, beginning with the removal of the enemy IADS and continuing until the final day of sorties.
The Increasing Extant and Emerging Threat
Without the context of the current threat environment, it can be difficult to understand the necessity of the capabilities of the F-35. Reviewing Operation Unified Protector may be the best way to understand how the F-35 will change the way NATO confronts future challenges. In support of the rebels against Gaddafi’s regime, NATO established a no-fly zone over the contested region and dramatically shifted the outcome of the nation. With only the application of airpower, NATO was able to manage the crisis without deploying large numbers of ground forces.
This relatively limited conflict required a force of greater than 160 tactical aircraft from thirteen coalition countries. The threat posed by the Libyan forces was predominantly equipment procured prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall: legacy SA-2, SA-3, SA-5, and SA-6 single digit SAM systems complimented by aging Mirage F1s, Mig-21s, and MiG-23s. The minimal threat posed by the regime in Libya will likely be encountered by NATO forces significantly less often in the future and replaced with advanced systems.
In both quantity and quality, highly advanced eastern threat systems have proliferated significantly in the world market. Today’s SAM systems are built on digital, networked sensors that can track hundreds of targets simultaneously. The engagement zone has been extended to distances exceeding 125 miles while attacking multiple targets simultaneously. Navalised versions of these same SAMs further extend the threat zone beyond the coast.
In the world fighter market, advanced 4th generation fighters are the minimal capability pursued by militaries and have become a commodity. Fighters containing electronically scanned radars, long range active missiles, infrared search and track sensors, and sophisticated jamming systems are now commonplace throughout the world. The resulting effectiveness of these threat fighters places NATO forces at parity.
The combination of advanced surface and air threats pose a real challenge to the ability of NATO’s forces to provide sufficient conventional deterrence. The threat environment will continue to become more complex and advanced as Russia and China prepare to export multiple 5th Generation platforms products on the world market. When stealth air frames become the standard capability of the air forces of the world, the threat posed by foreign militaries will shift drastically upward.
The Next Crisis Management Scenario
Syria is a prime example of what NATO forces might face in the future. Political concerns aside, the defence capability of the established Syrian government dwarfs that of Libya in both quantity and quality. The Syrian airforce has 2.5 times the number of fighters that were seen in Libya, among them advanced MiG-29 fighters. These fighters have to defend a country that is 1 / 10th the size of Libya. In addition, other parties may decide to support Syria with additional aircraft to further strengthen their air force.
The Syrian fighters are supplemented by a robust, dense SAM network. Compared to Libya, the Syrian IADS has more than 4 times the number of missile launchers and a missile density almost fifty times greater than the previous operation. Recent purchases of tactical double digit SAMs have reinforced their defensive posture. The potential transfer of strategic double digit SAMs would further fortify this posture.
The aggregation of the number of threat systems and their innate quality complicates the ability of any coalition of (NATO) forces to establish a no-fly zone and deter the regime. It would likely require double the number of assets deployed against Libya with no guarantee of success. This facet of the conflict has reduced the effectiveness of the political pressures. As advanced threat systems proliferate, conflicts in a high threat environment will likely become the rule instead of the exception.
The Longterm Modernisation of Crisis Management
The F-35 is not just set to reinvent airpower for NATO, it’s positioned to have a strong presence in the force for at least the next thirty years. Designed with power and cooling capacity that far exceeds the aircraft that it will be replacing, the F-35 will continue to provide significant opportunities for capability growth throughout its life cycle. This capacity combined with the open architecture of the F-35 will enable rapid integration of future avionics and increases in computing power. Simultaneously, the lethality of the F-35 will be improved. An existing effort to increase the carriage of AIM-120s to six in the internal bay will allow the F-35 to further extend its dominance in air-air engagements. Longer term, the development of 5th generation weapons such as Cuda will create an unmatched combination of air vehicle and air-air missile. Originally unveiled at the Air Force Technology Expo in 2012, the medium range hit-to-kill missile will expand the beyond visual range engagement zone while more than doubling the internal capacity of the F-35. It is expected that kinematic weapons of today will give way to the directed energy (DE) weapons of tomorrow, first as a defensive mechanism before potentially growing into an offensive weapon. Again, the power and cooling capacity of the F-35 could enable this transition.
To enable NATO’s essential purpose of safeguarding freedom, the members of the Alliance need to maintain a credible conventional deterrence capability. Currently, this capability is eroding due to the proliferation of advanced threats and is under increased pressure from the financial crisis. The procurement of F-35 will help to safeguard this aspect for NATO and ensure the viability of diplomatic efforts as the first measure to prevent future conflicts. Once established as the backbone of NATO airpower, the growth capabilities of the F-35 will ensure that this capability will not erode for years to come.