Fifth Generation: Technology and the New Face of Air Warfare

Fifth Generation: Technology and the New Face of Air Warfare

Daedalian National Convention Air Power Symposium, 8 April 2017

By Lieutenant Colonel (ret) Michael A. Buck, Daedalian Foundation Trustee.

One of the most eagerly anticipated and best attended highlights of the 2017 National Convention was the airpower symposium, held on Saturday, 8 April.  Titled “Fifth Generation: Technology and the New Face of Air Warfare,” the symposium featured an all-star cast of airpower experts from wide ranging operational and academic arenas.
Doctor Benjamin S. Lambeth

Doctor Benjamin S. Lambeth

Airpower Symposium Moderator

Doctor Lambeth is a long-time specialist in international security affairs and air warfare.  He spent 37 years with the RAND Corporation as a Senior Research Associate.  A civil-rated pilot, Ben has flown or flown in more than forty different types of fighter, attack, and jet trainer aircraft with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.  He has also flown with eight foreign air forces, and was the first U.S. citizen to fly the Soviet MiG-29 fighter.  Ben is the author of more than sixty acclaimed works about air and space power, including his 2013 book,The Unseen War Over Iraq: Allied Air Power and the Takedown of Saddam Hussein published by the Naval Institute Press.
Honorary Daedalian Doctor Ben Lambethserved as the moderator for the symposium.  During his opening remarks he stressed that what we now call “fifth generation” aircraft technology has revolutionized air warfare.He noted that fifth generation aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 acquire enormous amounts of data, fuse that data into information,and present that information to pilots in ways that give them unprecedented situational awareness.  Combined with their ability to operate in enemy airspace undetected, this situational awareness makes them extremely lethal. He asserted that “if an F-22 is properly flown, the first indication that you’re engaged with it is a fire light in your cockpit.”
Lieutenant General Stephen P. Mueller

Lieutenant General Stephen P. Mueller

USAF, Retired: Operation Desert Storm F-16 pilot

General Mueller entered the Air Force in 1979 after receiving his commission from the U.S. Air Force Academy.  He logged over 3,300 flight hours in the F-16, including combat missions flown in Operation Desert Storm.  He served as the Director, Operational Capabilities Requirements, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Plans and Requirements, Headquarters U.S. Air Force.  He was a commander at the flight, squadron, group, wing, and MAJCOM levels.  From 2010 to 2012 he servedas Vice Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, after which he served as the Inspector General of the Air Force until his retirement.  Today he works for Lockheed Martin as Vice President for Air Force Programs.  Fellow pilots refer to him as “Maggot.”

General Mueller began by addressing the real meaning of “fifth generation”.  He observed that because most people think linearly, the term “generation” implies a linear process.  In the case of aircraft generations, however, improvements in capabilities are actuallyexponential.  Thus the increase in capability from a fourthgenerationaircraft to fifth is akin to moving exponentially from 16 to 256.As an example of the advanced nature of the F-35, he noted that the coatings on the F-35 that are used to manage the aircraft’s radar signature have a thickness tolerance equal to the thickness of a hair on one’s head.

“This is not an Industrial Age aircraft, it is a Digital Age aircraft; it changes the way we do business.”  Formerly, essential mission information used by combat aviatorswas acquired, compiled, “fused” into useful information, and then supplied to the aviators by airmen at headquarters.  Later, this point of fusion was pushed forward, to the Combined Air Operations Centers (CAOCs), and then even further forward via aircraft such as the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS).  “Today, fusion occurs at the point of execution- it happens in the F-35 and F-22 cockpits, and they are pushing the information backward and into the entire network.  Multi-Domain Command and Control requires a philosophical shift, recognizing that this fusion is happening at the execution level.”

He also made note that we are on “version one” of the F-35, and that in ten years’ time the F-35’s capabilities will be remarkably different.  That’s because the changes that will be made will largely be software changes.  He notedthat Moore’s Law predictsthat in computing,one can expect to double the computational power while halving the priceevery 2 years.  He also discussed the per-unit cost of the F-35, notingthat althougha million dollars was viewed as a very big number thirty years ago, it is not seen as nearlyso big a number today.  He asserted that when one considers just what that the F-35 provides,it is a remarkable value for its price.

Lieutenant Colonel David R. “Chip” Berke

Lieutenant Colonel David R. “Chip” Berke

USMC:F-18, F-16, F-22, and F-35 pilot

Lieutenant Colonel Berke began his career as a fighter pilot in the F/A-18 in which he flew missions in support of Operations Southern Watch and Enduring Freedom.  In 2002 he reported to the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center as an F-18 TOPGUN Instructor and F-16A Viper Instructor Pilot.  In 2005 he deployed to Ramadi, Iraq as a Forward Air Controller.  In 2008 he became the first Marine to fly the F-22A Raptor, then served as F-22 Division Commander for the 422d Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base.  Next he became the first USMC F-35B pilot and the commander of VF-501 at Eglin Air Force Base.  He now serves on the Joint Staff.

Lieutenant Colonel Berke began by declaring that most people’s ideas of what the key attributes are for fighter aircraft are simply out of date.  “Everybody loves the maneuverability and speed of the Raptor, but F-22 pilots understand that the airplane’s least important attribute is its speed- which should suggest just how amazing the other, more important attributes really are.  What people never see at an airshow is what’s on the pilot’s display- what sort of information the pilot is getting that allows him to make really smart decisions in combat, and kill everything that he sees- and that has nothing to do with speed.  In fifthgeneration combat, the fastest airplane out there is just the first one to die.”

He moved on to discuss his latest aircraft, the F-35.  “In an F-35, people talk about information- the depth of spectral dominance- radio frequency spectrum, electro-optical, infrared- the information that the F-35 has at its disposal.  If what a fighter is expected to do in 2030 is different from what one was expected to do in 1970, then we had better start using different measurements to assess its effectiveness.  The criticisms many make of fifthgeneration airframes use those older measurements, such as dogfighting ability, which are largely irrelevant.  Stealth, sensor fusion, and networking– all of which add up to situational awareness–  are much more relevant today, and fourthgeneration aircraft do not have those things.  Stealth by itself does not keep you alive; it is used in concert with all of its other capabilities to be effective, but it is essential.  An aircraft without stealth is a non-starter.”

“Sensor Fusion combines the information from all sensors into a single view of the world shared by all players.  This saves enormous amounts of time by sharing information without any need for communication.  This is important, because we expect more of a fifthgeneration fighter pilot than we ever did of preceding generation fighter pilots.  The list of things that a brand new First Lieutenant in an F-22 or F-35 is expected to do is much longer than that expected of wingmen in the past.”

“Networking is now critical to success.Integrating the high quality information from surface and air sensors makes everyone’s situational awareness higher, and information is the key.  Although it’s true that the F-35 carries fewer missiles than an F-15, having four times the information makes the utility of those weapons grow exponentially.”

“The strongest critics of the F-35 are the people who know the least about it.  Fifth generation pilots know that information is paramount.  100 percent of pilots would choose better situational awareness over improvements in any other area.”

Major Andrew T. “Punk” Stolee

Major Andrew T. “Punk” Stolee

USAF: F-15 and F-22 pilot

Major Stolee served as F-15C Chief of Weapons and Tactics in the 422d Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, followed by four years as an F-22A Raptor Instructor Pilot with the 433rd Weapons Squadron, Air Force Weapons School, also at Nellis.  In the 433rd he served as the lead writer for the F-22 tactics manual.  In 2017 he worked as an Air Force Strategic Policy Fellow with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.  Major Stolee is currently assigned to the Office of Net Assessment at the Pentagon, which was created in 1973 to forecast U.S. military capabilities versus those of other countries for a period 20 to 30 years into the future.

Major Stolee’s introductory remarks began with this overarching observation: “As technology advances, we need to make humans more effective.  That may include using artificial intelligence to help humans with the decision making process so the human can interact better with the technology at his disposal.”

“This is not a new idea; it was first identified as a result of the Air Intercept Missile Evaluation (AIMVAL) and the Air Combat Evaluation (ACEVAL) tests conducted between 1974 and 1978.”  Major Stolee quoted Lieutenant Colonel “Shad” Dvorchak, an operations analyst at Nellis Air Force Base: “In AIMVAL, incremental hardware advantages had tended to wash out in the long run as opponents adapted; similarly in ACEVAL, human interactions had been five times as influential on outcomes as test variables like force ratio or the initial GCI condition.”

“The test results demonstrated that the single most important factor affecting the outcomes of aerial engagements is situational awareness”Major Stolee emphasized.  “We can now reap the benefits of flying aircraft built around that concept. By using low observability, or stealth, combined with sensor fusion and information available in the cockpit, we can create a situation where the human being in that cockpit can operate at a place of higher situational awareness than the adversary at all times.  That makes the human better, which makes the force better, which makes America better.”

Major Stolee offered an example of how fifth generation aircraft technology has radically changed what today’s fighter pilots do, and how they do it.  “In the F-15 we spent a lot of time running the radar to find the bad guy so that we couldshoot him.  In the F-22, the increased level of situational awareness provided by the aircraft frees me from running the radar, allowing me to focus on being in the exactly right place at the right time, and on making sure that other forces are where they need to be.  I now have opportunities to do different things that will allow everybody else to be better.  The F-22 carries as many missiles as an F-15; the difference is that I can make those missiles count better.  I can choose when I am going to use them, as opposed to having to use them just in case the adversary does something.  In the F-22 I can watch him play his hand, and then pick him off.  Growing up in the F-15, and then teaching in the F-22, I have found that the type of pilot who does well has also changed.  In the F-15, the pilot who ran his radar well and understood the geometry of air-to-air was King Kong- but if he just ran the radar well, he did fine.  The opposite is true in the F-22: radar skills are not that important, whereas the pilots who best understand the geometry, and know when it is the right time to do something are the most successful.”

Doctor Richard P. Hallion

Doctor Richard P. Hallion

Air Force Historian andAerospace Science and Technology Analyst

Doctor Hallion is a retired aerospace analyst and executive with the U.S. Air Force where he served in many key history-related roles, including Chief Historian of the Air Force Flight Test Center from 1982 to 1986 and as the Historian of the U.S. Air Force from 1991 until 2002.Dick has alsoconducted researchon Science and Technology Policy issues for the Institute for Defense Analyses.  His recent work includescollaborating withMajorGeneral Curtis M. Bedke and Marc V. Schanz in 2016 to authorHypersonic Weapons and US National Security: A 21st Century Breakthrough for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.  He is currently a member of the Board of Trustees at Florida Polytechnic University.

Honorary Daedalian Doctor Richard Hallion began with an overview of military aviation history to provide context for today’s fifth generation capabilities.  “At the dawn of airpower the first use of aircraft was to provide information to commanders.  The common currency of any enterprise today is still information.  There are still some constraints that limit us- physical capabilities of pilots, for instance.  We can use systems to compensate for those limitations.  Unlike airframe development, which tends to be linear in nature, systems development tends to be exponential.”

“Continuous improvement is critical to keep from falling behind.France ended World War One as the most powerful aviation nation.  In 1940 they lost to the Germans because they had become diffident, and gone way off track.  During World War One the U.S. was completely reliant on our Allies for aircraft, but after the war we created a dual-use industrial base that could support aviation.  We wound up with tremendous production capacity, producing over 300,000 airplanes in World War Two.  Other countries had technical excellence, but were hopelessly out-produced.  After World War Two the U.S. fell behind in technological advances in air and space power, running second or third in many key areas.”

“The common view of aircraft progression incorrectly perceives that at the end of the 1950s the aeronautical revolution had ended- that practical limits in terms of speed, altitude, and so on have been reached.Since then, however, there have been many advances made in aerodynamics, navigation, materials, engines, and stealth.”

“Where are we going next?  Our first challenge is in acquisition.  Acquisition is more like a soup bowl than a rational process.  Today it takes ten times as long to develop a weapon system than in World War Two.  Aircraft more and more are becoming platforms; they are taking a long period of time to develop, and then will be continuously adapted over their service lives.  We cannot speak knowledgeably about what the F-22 or F-35 twenty or thirty years from now will be doing.  They may have onboard systems and capabilities that at best we can only hazily think of.”

“Looking at the threat environment we are in today, when faced with anti-aircraft missile systems such as Russia’s S-300 or China’s HQ-9, it is very important to note that without fifthgeneration aircraft to deal with those threats, the fourthgeneration aircraft are going to be in very serious trouble.As was pointed out by our two operational speakers, we know why our adversaries are trying to develop those fifthgeneration capabilities.  In time they will, and the numbers of their systems may well exceed ours, which will be very serious.”

“One of the things we need to do is invest seriously in hypersonics, specifically for missiles, which will give us long reach and rapid response.  Our potential adversaries have made great advances in these areas, and they clearly intend to use them against us.  Hypersonics is key to the future.  Consider that we entered the 19th century with a mobility of about 6 miles an hour- the speed of a vehicle drawn by an animal.  We entered the 20th Century at 60 miles an hour- the speed of a steam locomotive.  We entered the 21stCentury at 600 miles an hour, and we’re on track for a 6,000 mile per hour vehicle by the turn of the next century.”

Questions and Answers

After the panelists made their remarks they entertained questions from the audience for nearly an hour.

Doctor Lambeth got the ball rolling when he recalled a recent Red Flag exercise where F-22s faced fourth generation fighters daily, with a resultant kill ratio of around 120 to 1.  He asked whether this was representative of what fifth generation aircraft can do.  Lieutenant Colonel Berke and Major Stolee addressed his question.

Berke: “When fourth generation fighters train against each other, the adversaries are often given restrictions and presentations that they may use.  When a fifth generation fighter trains against a fourth generation adversary, the typical brief is “get as many airplanes as you can, and do whatever you want.”  There is no way to say this without sounding flippant, but fighting fourth generation aircraft in the Raptor is so easy that it’s really not relevant to what we’re concerned about today.  Note that our adversaries are not trying to improve the fourth generation characteristics of their fighters; rather, they are building fifth generation platforms to compete with Raptors, integrating them, and building networks, with a whole host of other systems that actually will make our problem more complicated.  The fight that I am most concerned about is the fifth generation fight.  It is a totally different world.  The price of admission to that fight is a fifth generation fighter.  That’s why the rest of the world is trying to build them.”

Stolee:  “When a multi-role fourth generation fighter has to suddenly switch from his primary mission to another, say from Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses to Air-to-Air, it can be extremely disorienting as the pilot removes his attention from his targeting pod and then focuses on his radar.  It’s a complex problem.  In contrast, the F-35 and F-22 can switch roles much faster because of the way the information is presented to the pilots.  Being low observable also creates more time for the fifth generation aircraft to make that switch.  This means that the fifth generation aircraft are the best at the toughest parts of the mission- better than the other guy, every time.  When a fifth generation fighter fails to defeat an enemy, it’s due to a mistake made by the pilot, not due to a lack of information.”

Someone from the audience asked whether fifth generation fighter pilots still use four-ship formations.  Major Stolee and Lieutenant Colonel Berke answered in turn.

Stolee: “We still operate as a four-ship when possible.  The four-ship gives you the most flexibility and options- to mass firepower when needed, or to maneuver when required.  It does not look like the traditional four-ship.”

Berke:“We’re not supposed to use the term “roving motorcycle gang” (even though it’s apt) because it makes it sound like we’re just running around with four airplanes, doing what we want.  One big difference between today’s four-ship and that of the past is what we expect of number Four.  We used to expect a new number Four to keep sight of lead.  If that’s all he could do, that was acceptable.  Today a new number Four, just out of RTU, is expected to operate autonomously- to make independent fighter decisions, to provide high level information, and to supply kinetic and non-kinetic decisions as an independent fighter.  In the past we would never imagine number Four serving as the leading edge of a mission.  Now we do.”

Former National Commander Lieutenant General Nick Kehoe asked“How well are we adapting to the mindset that has to change in terms of employing systems as we move from fourthgeneration to fifthgeneration?” General Mueller and Major Stolee responded.

Mueller: “With regard to adapting, we still have a significant training gap.  We still have a T-38 as a pilot training plane, and the leap from that to the F-35 is like Mount Kilimanjaro.  The whole idea of how we train has to change.  On Command and Control it is not generational, it is a continuous adaptation.”

Stolee: “In my experience, every time we introduce something new, the people who have never done anything before will adapt easily.  It’s the people with old habit patternsthat are the hardest to move.  In general, if we know how to teach it, they will be able to learn it.  The challenge is in figuring out how to teach it.”

Mueller: “The requirements / acquisitions process is broken.  Currently, success in these areas is determined by whether or not you follow the process, not whether you deliver what the warfighter needs.  It’s time to throw the entire process out.   The requirements document for the U-2 spy plane was a one-page document, whereas my company just delivered our Joint Stars proposal, and we had to rent a truck to deliver the 32 cases of paper required to submit for that proposal.”

Another Daedalian asked “What is coming after fifthgeneration?” Doctor Hallion tackled that one first, followed by General Mueller and Doctor Lambeth.

Hallion:  “Command and Control is going to be even more critical in the future, and it must be more resilient.  Sixthgeneration will likely be noted by subtle differences.  With Moore’s Law driving architectures and capabilities, our mastery of and ability to incorporate cyber is going to be absolutely crucial.  Instead of a future containing very exotic looking aircraft, we may in fact have something that looks very pedestrian, but what is going on inside that system will be very different; exchanging and mastering information, using cyber not only for our benefit, but also in an offensive way.  An aircraft drawing information from assets on the ground and in space, exchanging information with ships at sea- we saw a hint of this in the early stages of the entry into Afghanistan, where special operators were coordinating with B-52s to drop Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs, which are guided by GPS satellites in orbit.  We currently have a silly national debate about whether or not we want to see space weaponized- but as this example shows, space is already weaponized!  Other areas for advance may include materials, to include their electromagnetic properties.”

Mueller: “Big Data is going to be important.  Systems that collect data from various sources and put it all together to provide awareness are whatIbelieve sixth generation will be.  The data that will exist ten years from now is incomprehensible.”

Lambeth: “That raises the question of whether we have reached a point where the very idea of generations is obsolete.  Compared with the YF-16, a day VFR gunfighter, the Block 70 F-16 is like something from a different planet– fundamentally and qualitatively different.  Within the F-22 and F-35 airframes, their capabilities will be radically different.”

Another audience member asked “Why does it seem that there is no appetite torestart the F-22 production line and build more F-22s, given its fifth generation capabilities and that the research and development has already been done?” General Mueller provided the answer.

Mueller: “First, there is no production line to restart.  Equipment is not the issue, it’s thefifteen thousand supplierswho no longer exist.  Also, why would you restart production of a plane designed in the 1980s?  The things that we’ve learned since the production of the F-22 by building the F-35 are remarkable.  For example, nearly every surface on the F-35 is a sensor.  That is not the case with the F-22, and we’d have to make significant redesigns to make it that way.  We certainly can merge thebest attributes of the F-35 and F-22 into something new and better.”

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