Embrace the Air-Power Revolution

U.S. Can’t Approach 5th-Gen Aircraft the ‘Old Way’

By Robbin Laird

Re-printed from the 21 February 2011 op-ed in Defense News.

U.S. air power has reached a turning point. As budget cuts increase and the U.S. Air Force’s percentage of the defense budget falls, the crucial requirement is to invest in the future. President Barack Obama is calling for a Sputnik moment in the investment in future technologies, and there is little reason to exclude the Defense Department from such an effort.

Yet this is exactly what is happening. After canceling the F-22 without ever understanding what the Raptor brings to the joint war fighter, the administration is slowing its investment in the F-35, instead putting money into legacy aircraft.

The new aircraft represent a sea change with significant savings in terms of fleet costs and overall capability. But this will not happen unless policymakers understand that the transition is not simply from fourth-generation to fifth-generation aircraft, but a transition from yesterday’s approach to war fighting to distributed operations.

The shift is from linear to sequential operations; it is a shift away from fighter pilots who need to reach back for support from large aircraft command-and-control and ISR platforms, to 360-degree dominance by deployed decision-makers operating not in a network but a honeycomb.

The F-35 is a flying combat system able to operate across the spectrum of warfare. It is the first plane that has the combat system to manage 360-degree space. Deployed as a force, it enables distributed air operations, an approach crucial to the survival of our pilots in the period ahead.

The fifth-generation aircraft are a benchmark for a new approach to airpower. The traditional aircraft adds systems that provide capabilities, and the pilot has to manage each new system. The F-35 has five major combat systems that interact with each other to provide capabilities.

Functional capabilities emerge from the interaction of the systems done by the machine and are not simply correlated with a single system. For example, jamming can be done by several systems aboard the aircraft; the machine determines which one through interaction among the systems. The entire system rests on a common architecture with broadband capabilities.

But if airpower leaders simply mimic the operations of older aircraft with fifth-generation planes, the promise of new air operations will not be realized. The result would be a repeat of the failures of the French facing the Germans in World War II, where the French had superior tanks but outmoded tactics and command structures, and achieved predictable results.

The new aircraft simply do not function as do the old. Considerable cultural change will be required in moving to distributed air operations and decision-makers.

And the shift will require developers of weapons and remotely piloted aircraft to think differently about how to leverage the new stealth-enabled distributed air operational capabilities.

F-22 pilots have already called for the change. They don’t want to be tethered to the Airborne Warning and Control System; they don’t want to be directed by the classic operations of a centralized combat air operations center.

Another key part of the airpower cultural revolution is the approach to maintainability. To hear some Air Force officials, they sound like the union members in the 1970s objecting to changes in the work force associated with digital production of the newspaper. To recall the days of the controversy, union members wanted to keep their typesetting functions in spite of the elimination of the jobs necessary to produce a newspaper digitally. They lost and Rupert Murdoch won.

The same is true of the shift from mechanical to digital maintenance regimes. Many jobs will be eliminated – the U.S. Marine Corps estimates one-third – and the tooth-to-tail ratio much improved.

The administration’s ideological opposition to performance-based logistics (PBL) systems is part of the problem of “union style” resistance to change. The last administration signed a PBL with the partners; the current administration should honor it. The benefits are clear; less cost for sustainment for a more capable aircraft.

In short, the U.S. and its partners are on the cusp of an air-power revolution if our leaders have the courage to embrace cultural change. And there is a clear need to direct investments toward the future, not the past. After all, this is change you can believe in.

Robbin Laird is editor of a book on the evolution of air operations, “Re-Norming Air Operations,” and co-founder of the defense analytical website www.sldinfo.com. “Re-Norming Air Operations” is available for free as PDF download.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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