Plan Jericho, published in 2015, outlined a strategy that would transform the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) into a fifth-generation air force by 2025 which, if delivered on schedule, would make it the world’s first. The transformation is not based on merely the possession of the next generation of aircraft technology including the F-35A, P-8 Poseidon, EA-18G Growler and E-7A Wedgetail, but on a reconceptualization of the RAAF as an integrated, networked force. Significantly, this new operating concept is based on working in a highly collaborative manner with the army, navy, industry and allies – especially partners in the F-35 programme – in order to achieve the full potential of the new technologies, and to ensure that the networked force is capable of working effectively with them.
The Australian plan has given many air forces pause for thought. That an air force comprising fewer than 15,000 regular personnel is seeking to transition to an entirely fifth-generation air force within the next decade to meet its strategic and security objectives demonstrates an undertaking to conduct future air operations in a conceptually different way. The commitment to a similar transformation among other F-35 partners is firmly underway – both the US Air Force and the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) have pledged to transition to fifth-generation air forces.1 In contrast, for air forces that are not committed to a fifth-generation programme, or the transformational concepts that underpin it, the time is rapidly approaching where a hard-nosed evaluation and decision will need to be made on where they want to be as an air force in the next 10–15 years. The choice is tactical, strategic and political.
This article analyses some of the stakes involved as the introduction of the F-35 increasingly acts as a driver for fifth-generation transformation. It will also consider some of the implications for air forces that have committed to fifth-generation programmes and, perhaps more significantly, for those that have not.
The Partners and Why They Joined the F-35 Programme
Nine countries originally signed up as partners to the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme, the precursor to the F-35: the US; the UK; Australia; Canada; Italy; The Netherlands; Norway; Turkey; and Denmark. Three others committed through Foreign Military Sales: Israel; Japan; and South Korea. As the most expensive military development and procurement plan in history, the F-35 has attracted a great deal of controversy since the development contract was signed in November 1996. From its conception, the JSF was to be an international co-development programme, a decision that was driven by a number of factors. All of the partners were either NATO countries and/or close US allies, and there was, from the outset, a clear imperative for interoperability and interconnectivity in coalition-based air operations. The partners had been operating a range of different platforms of varying levels of capability, and the F-35 enabled them to operate the same aircraft with all the evident advantages that brings in terms of interoperability, training, and logistics, among others. Furthermore, the partners were all involved, to varying degrees, in the design, building and testing of the aircraft. This was a unique element of the programme that helped maintain domestic hi-tech military industries.
However, the F-35 programme and the cooperative and industrial advantages it confers are, as described above, more than the next-generation platform conceived at the outset of the JSF programme. It represents a commitment by the partner air forces to exploiting a range of new, highly advanced capabilities that constitute a step change in the gathering, processing and sharing of information, particularly in contested environments. Indeed it is the recalibration of strategic and operational thinking that has been driven by the requirement to operate in those increasingly contested environments, and against near-peer adversaries, which has proved so persuasive in winning the argument for the fifth-generation partners. It has required a shift in thinking and a reconceptualization of the conduct of air operations in the Joint and Combined environment through the significantly enhanced surveillance, command and control, and information sharing that fifth-generation capabilities provide. However, most of the air forces acquiring the F-35 have equally begun to realize that having a fifth-generation aircraft does not merely equate to having a fifth-generation capability as defined above. It also compels air forces to integrate and network with land and maritime forces in an unprecedented way – next-generation air forces will require next-generation joint forces.
Implications for F-35 Partners of Integrating Fourth- and Fifth-Generation Fighters
F-35 production is now firmly underway. This puts considerable pressure on those partner countries and Foreign Military Sales customers to prioritize the elements that will allow them to realize the full force-multiplier potential of the aircraft. This includes the enhanced data management, connectivity and bandwidth upgrades required to operationalize and fully exploit the capability that fifth-generation aircraft offer for information-centric warfare and cross-platform connectivity.
In this regard, the F-35 has a ‘forcing function’ for militaries looking to adopt a fifth-generation standard. Naval and ground forces stand to benefit significantly from the network-centric, cross-platform, multiple-shooter concept of operations of which the F-35 will form such a significant element. As Justin Bronk suggests, given the almost unlimited scope of connecting the F-35 to every system in the battlespace, joint force commands will be compelled to invest in the connectivity and bandwidth for the platforms that stand to provide the greatest increase in combat power and flexibility.2 This will drive the development of fifth-generation joint forces, a concept that has significant potential, particularly in contested environments. It also is a key element in underpinning programmes such as Plan Jericho – the transformation to an integrated networked joint force that has combat power much greater than the sum of its parts.
Whereas the RAAF is looking to upgrade its entire legacy fleet over the next decade, the majority of the F-35 partners, including the US Air Force, will need to run their legacy fleets alongside their fifth-generation platforms for some years beyond that. The RAF and Italian Air Force, for example, possess the highly capable Typhoon, a fourth-generation aircraft with high performance, an active scan radar, Link 16 and a comprehensive air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons suite. As Bronk points out, in such cases investment in the F-35 and Typhoon should not be seen as a binary choice as ‘each aircraft offer strengths to complement the other’s capabilities. The combination of F-35 and Typhoon can be far more potent than a force composed entirely of either type in many operational scenarios’.3
As a US-led, but highly collaborative, programme, development of the F-35 has drawn the partners together. The sharing of technologies, concepts, tactics, training, maintenance, logistics and procedures represent a significant opportunity for fifth-generation air forces. With the F-35 being operated by so many states there are also substantial prospects for tactical, technical and conceptual innovation which will allow the aircraft to be highly ‘future-proof’ without compromising issues such as sovereignty, national defence industries or strategic autonomy. All these elements contribute to powerful forces drawing the F-35 partners into what might be described as a fifth-generation ‘club’. The level of international cooperation is unprecedented, with pilots training together at the F-35 multinational pilot training centre at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, maintenance facilities being developed in Italy, Turkey, Norway and The Netherlands, and a global logistics supply chain. The result is a deepening of cooperation between the partner air forces, many of whom already possess a strong ability to do so through links forged over the years through NATO and operating in coalitions since the end of the Cold War.
Implications of Integrated Fourth- and Fifth-Generation Air Forces for Countries that are not F-35 Partners
Air forces that have not yet committed, or do not have current plans to transition to fifth-generation systems, will need to consider the operational and strategic implications of such decisions. Four areas should be considered in light of future military operations: the ability to engage near-peer adversaries in a high-intensity environment; the military status and political parity with allied countries; the integration and collaboration capabilities with partner forces; and the potential limitation of the depth and breadth of defence technological innovation.
As previously discussed, fifth-generation systems are not merely about employing stealth attributes, but rather about harnessing the substantial advancements in processing ability and data fusion capabilities inherent in such systems. Effectively, the aim is to create and operate a networked environment where the lines are seamless between sensors, shooters and operators. As a result, air forces that do not possess these capabilities are likely to find themselves increasingly relegated to a supporting rather than a leading role in planning for, and executing, future contingency operations. Countries that are not able to contribute and operate effectively in high-threat environments will potentially find themselves not on an equal footing with their coalition partners, a position that may compromise their role in military and, increasingly, political decision-making. Except Australia, all of the original nine partner countries are NATO members, allowing the smaller air forces of the Alliance – such as Spain and Belgium – to mitigate the limitations of their continued reliance on fourth-generation assets by optimising the capabilities of the F-35 with their legacy platforms in a NATO context. For larger Western countries not in the F-35 programme – such as France and Germany – there will be particular pressure to prioritize the optimization of their existing platforms with the capabilities of the F-35. With the possible exception of the RAAF, all the F-35 partners will be running legacy fleets alongside their new capability for many years to come and will have to adapt, develop and deploy new technologies and concepts to achieve this. Clearly, for air forces not yet committed to a fifth-generation program, the imperative is to adapt to a future where coalition partners have already taken this step. In short, without fifth-generation aircraft, an air force risks being in a supporting role in a coalition air environment and will require a fifth-generation partner to provide mission success against a near-peer adversary.
Finally, the benefits of privileged access to the highest level of military technology enjoyed by the F-35 are substantial. The highly collaborative nature of the programme ensures that technology transfer occurs at an unprecedented scale and provides a wealth of opportunities for hi-tech defence industries across the partner countries. The fact that the F-35 will be operated by so many states will also boost the opportunities for innovation in disciplines such as engineering and avionics, as well as tactics and concepts. For air forces outside of the programme, technological advances can, of course, be pursued at the national level but they will not benefit from the exchange of ideas, concepts and innovation that are generated by this collaborative programme.
After a decade and a half of delays, setbacks and bad press, the F-35 programme and the technological advancements linked to it are gathering momentum. The programme is driving the partner states not just to unprecedented levels of military cooperation and convergence, but developing the networked joint forces necessary to operate in an increasingly contested environment. For states that have chosen not to participate in the fifth-generation programme, the challenges will be tactical, strategic and political.
Countries not actively involved in fifth-generation transformation are starting to face a capability gap that will only continue to widen over the next decade. Other means – political, financial or industrial – will be needed to drive the change necessary to mitigate the divergence or offset its effects. Set against these challenges, these air forces might argue that their national security priorities over the next 10–15 years are perfectly well met by remaining outside the F-35 programme and the fifth-generation capabilities of which it is a core element. They might also credibly contend that legacy assets are inherently less vulnerable to disruption of the networks on which fifth-generation platforms rely and that the significant costs associated with the programme could be more efficiently apportioned elsewhere to meet those national priorities.
The arguments presented in this article suggest, however, that the implications of this approach in the longer-term are potentially serious and that there will be, sooner or later, a cost in terms of capability, operational effectiveness, technological superiority and status.