Shaping a New Con-ops: The Impact of the F-22 and F-35

An Interview with Lieutenant Colonel Damon Anthony, Major James Akers, and Lieutenant Colonel Steve Pieper

11/05 /2010 – In mid-September, Second Line of Defense sat down with three experienced USAF pilots to discuss the impact of the new aircraft on concepts of operations.  The pilots have significant experience with F-15s, F-22s and or with the shaping of the F-35 for introduction into the USAF.  The discussion was held at Langley AFB in mid-September 2010.  The three pilots—Lt. Col Damon Anthony, Maj. James Akers and Lt. Col Steve Pieper—provided an understanding of how classic combat operations built around the use of AWACS and the CAOC will be modified as new aircraft re-shape operational capabilities.

Air Force Version of F-35 Landing in April 2010 (Credit: Lockheed Martin)Air Force Version of F-35 Landing in April 2010 (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

SLD: In a classic legacy air-to-air battle you’ve got fighters coordinating with AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System). And basically, forward deployed and you’re trying to carry your weapons into denied air space. Reach back in the AWACS is essential.  With the new aircraft essentially, we can see a future where you will not need an AWACS in the same way, or your con-ops of operation are considerably different than when you are AWACS dependent.

“Bean” Akers: I have 1,200 hours in the F-15C model, both here operationally and then flew the Raptor for three years, showed up here in Langley right before I went operational, and then was on all the first deployments, Kadina, Alaska, you name it.  So, I have done just about everything in the jet other than shoot something off the jet in anger.

One of the key things you talk about is there may not be a need for an AWACS.  But there also may not be the ability for that AWACS to be there, because of the survivability challenges being posed by the threat systems that are being developed to remove them from the fight.

The enemy always has a vote.

So we practice our training that there may be times where it is just us over the horizon where the AWACS is hundreds of miles behind us and he’s really not doing a whole lot for us.  I’ve seen that at Red Flag where he’s trying to build a picture and his systems just can’t keep up with the mass of the enemy coming from, say, the west.  And we have to basically tell them, we’ve got the picture much better than you do.

The legacy way of fighting with the fourth generation assets relying on reach back is a critical part of the way they employ.  As we move forward with the systems and sensors that are on both the F-22 and F-35, I really don’t demand or need that requirement anymore.  Do they add to my battle space awareness?  Yes, they do.  But there are times where he is not needed and may not be available due to the threat.

“Shotgun” Anthony: I’d like to dive into what Bean is talking about.  I would like to discuss the difference between the current fight and what we’re moving to with fifth generation aircraft.  And of course that doesn’t mean that Legacy aircraft, the fourth generation aircraft are not in the play.

But when it was only fourth generation aircraft, and the sensors on the 4th generation jet were structured so that they are federated solutions to different pieces of the RF spectrum.  I have an active radar that is continuously transmitting a picture off my nose. In other words, seeing what is in front of me is the focus of the classic approach.

And that’s a federated system on the aircraft — an individual aircraft.  And so in order to build a coherent picture in front of our noses, we had to communicate verbally on our radio.

I am painting a picture of a three-dimensional battle space with words.  And we would communicate with what we were seeing with our individual jets, because it doesn’t necessarily see the whole airspace in front of me.  We parse out sections of airspace to sanitize in front of us.  And we build a picture from close end from the nose all the way out.

SLD: So you built an operational culture tied to a specific technological capability?

“Bean” Akers: That’s exactly right.  And that was one federated system that’s on the jet.  And you multiply that times the four or five, as the different federated systems.  When you talk about 15C, you’ve got a radar-warning receiver.  That has low accuracy, DF capability, pretty much no ranging.

I have an electronic attack suite that is tied in with the radar warning receiver, that if it sees something and it thinks it’s hostile and it sees enough power, it decides autonomously whether to jam it or not.  You have targeting pods deal with the guided weapons.

And then later, we learned they had other applicabilities for non-traditional ISR, i.e., following high value targets in Afghanistan and aiding to the picture that the Predator and Reaper are getting.

So there’s all these independent federated technologies on Legacy aircraft that we’ve had to figure out how we’re going to use them, create work arounds, create concept of operations.  And it became a systems integration approach outside of the aircraft to become effective.

SLD: A systems’ approach outside of the individual aircraft?

“Beans” Akers: That’s exactly right. As a pilot, you’re looking at the entire suite of sensors.  And this dates back to World War I.

“Shotgun” Anthony: You’re trying to take it all in and create that picture, whereas in the F-22, it fuses all that together and gives to me in a nice single presentation.  So I don’t have to do a lot of federated management or systems management within my own aircraft, other than making sure they’re on and they’re working.

And then the F-22 gives me that display, much like a battle manager; I have almost everything else he has.  And now I can manage assets or manage my flow or my attack or whatever is demanded by the situation.

SLD: So there is a key interaction between the new technologies and capabilities and a shift in the culture of the con-ops?

“Rowdy” Pieper: The mission commander or the flight lead was always clamoring for sufficient information to make appropriate tactical decisions, which are really only one very thin step removed from operational decisions.  And from the operator’s perspective, it will be like the difference between stumbling around a dark room and turning the lights on.

The combat situation will be instantaneously transparent.  All of those high processing time tasks that the pilot used to spend his time on with the objective of knowing what was going on so that he can then take an appropriate action—you know, point the jet in the right direction, herd the cats in the right direction—are now done by the airplane.

All of those activities are now completely overcome by events.  He doesn’t need to do them anymore; he now sees what he needs to see to make those decisions.

So from an operator’s perspective, it will feel very natural.  And it will feel like you’re now able to breathe, whereas before, you were always struggling for breath.  You’re no longer at the top of Everest trying to breathe; you’re down at sea-level.  You get what you need.

I think the most difficult and the most painful set of shifts will be organizational.  They will relate to the people who are now forced to relinquish operational strategic decisions to folks like us in the room.  Which has always been the case.

So tactical decisions have always had operational strategic and national impact.  The difference is that organizationally, we’ll be forced to reconcile that notion, and understand that the individual who’s charged with those tactical decisions will now have the kind of information that was previously only available nearly fused but far more imperfectly fused in the CAOC. That information will now be distributed in the battlespace.

So that speaks to an entirely different — not just physical architecture, also personnel architecture, but more importantly leadership paradigm and approach to solving a problem.  You now are far more able to remove fat layers of intermediate data processing and you’re able to sic a force of very capable assets on an objective.

We’re able dynamically to adapt in the middle of that process and make appropriate decisions in support of your objective far more effectively than if you had just sent planes out on a specific task.  Go perform this task, because we back here in the building think that this collection of individuals performing these tasks will result in the amalgamative outcome that we were hoping for.

Now we can send folks with the idea of an outcome we hope for.  And they now have the information to take that kind of action.  And they have the capacity to go where other assets couldn’t go previously.

SLD: In other words, distributed battle management is inherent in the technology of the new systems? The task becomes managing the ability for this force to fight effectively, once I’ve launched it and then my major task is managing the battle in an interactive manner, rather than a top down manner.

“Rowdy” Pieper: The battle managers shift from pushing information to the deployed strike assets and now can shift to true battle management.  They are no longer integral to providing those snippets of information that are required for the folks in front to go perform what they were supposed to be performing.  So they now actually are really, truly in a position to manage the battle.

F-22 at Red Flag Exercise (Credit: http://www.armedforces-int.com/news/first_2010_red_flag_exercise_at_nellis_air_force_base.html)F-22 at Red Flag Exercise (Credit: http://www.armedforces-int.com)

SLD: The F-22 is then a lead element in shaping a new culture?

“Shotgun” Anthony: The F-22 broke the mold. It had taken what was always put on the pilot’s lap as opposed to putting more and more federated systems on the jet to bring in different pieces of data that the pilot had to translate into information and apply.

The F-22 broke the mold and is able digitally to fuse information; to free up the pilot to be a decision maker and actually apply the information to have an effect.  And I really like what Rowdy was saying about we always gone out the door with objectives.  But our objectives in the Legacy aircraft are singular or plural in nature and have a tactical effect.

My mission today is to protect this lane for 20 minutes, don’t let anybody through.  My mission today is to go hit this target with a weapon. And we’ve had missiles are our priorities and misses our threat.

With the F-22 and the F-35, and with the information capabilities, which come with them, you can take an objective designed to create an effect.

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

—General George Patton Jr.

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