F-35 pilots today are an order of magnitude more lethal and capable than any previous generation of fighter pilots and yet that might not be enough to win a war against China.
The jet does so much for the pilot in terms of global situation awareness, connectivity, and interoperability. Yet having the jet be so capable is not enough. We need to maximize human performance in each and every 5th Gen cockpit.
Fighter pilots need to be as capable as the aircraft they are flying; that is not the case today.
The looming threat in North America (yes, Canada) is China; not Russia or the arctic. Shoring up the arctic, guarding the sovereignty of the continent and supporting the other western nations with interests in the arctic is critical. Climate change permits increasing access to the vast wealth of natural resources in the arctic that will be fought over in the future.
But China is the biggest and most capable adversary. The build-up over time has awakened many of us to the threat that China poses. The US air forces (Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps) are the smallest, oldest and least capable fleets in their history. Any conflict with China will occur a long way from continental North America. We will be out-numbered and out-gunned 3 or 4 to 1. We understood ‘Attrition Warfare’ back in the Cold War days and were willing to trade our NATO fighters for Soviet-bloc fighters hoping that we were better trained and more capable and could outlast our enemies.
We cannot win an attrition war with China.
We need to kill better than 4 of them for every 1 of us and essentially never lose a jet on our side. Waves of unarmed suicide drones (older generation fighters converted to drones), followed by capable 4th and 5th Gen Chinese fighters will present a massive problem for the West to solve, killing them all and surviving when badly outnumbered will be a near impossible task.
We continue to gain confidence in the capability of our 5th Gen assets and unleash so much lethality with this platform. We are demonstrating just how effective the F-35 can be in the hands of even our youngest and least experienced fighter pilots. However, we must maximize the performance of each, and every F-35 pilot for that combat environment. Often, the F-35 makes up for the lack of talent, experience or capability of the human flying it. We don’t win 20:1 in major exercises because the pilots are so overwhelmingly better than any previous generation of pilots. Those young F-35 pilots are good but they aren’t that good! The F-35 carries the day in most every exercise and engagement.
We need to educate and support fighter pilots, being the most capable ‘Tactical Athletes’ possible, individually and collectively. We don’t only have to be the smartest tacticians and bravest warriors, we need to be cognitively, physiologically and physically peaked when sent into combat. Does this really make sense? Think about the sustained high-level performances of Lebron James or Tom Brady (yes, I said Brady…) and talk about their training support, ruthless adherence to nutrition and off-court wellbeing. Now apply that to fighter pilots who refuse to drink liquids when flying because they don’t want to be forced to pee while airborne. Think about the bad food habits and what the average American and so many fighter pilots consume over the course of the day. I don’t have enough space to write about all the stories of bad food, cases of soda (and in one case Diet Dr Pepper), chips and candy bars for lunches, Skittles in the flight suit pocket of one of my peers and even 64 oz 7-Eleven coffee mugs during the day. It is a long list of bad food habits. How do those sugar highs and lows help a body perform at its peak when flying a fighter jet? Sodas, Red Bull or Monster drinks are often the options pilots lean on for hydration instead of water or even Gatorade (or any Electrolyte drink). And we wonder why pilots make serious mistakes or fail to perform as expected in flight. Some of their performances can certainly be linked to poor preparation of their bodies and minds prior to flight. What is not recognized is how well we have planned, briefed and prepared for our tactical missions. We are the most professional vocation I know in terms of readying for our tasks. We know our capabilities, we study our enemy and we attack based on the best training, planning and as often as humanly possible, execution. Yet inside our cockpits, men and women are not at their peak. They don’t have training and support like Lebron James or Tom Brady. No one taught them about nutrition or proper hydration or even how to prepare their bodies in the gym in the periods before facing combat.
One of the easiest hacks is to teach pilots to maintain hydration. Give every pilot kit to permit them to relieve themselves when strapped in a tight cockpit so that they are not afraid of drinking and having to pee. It is absurd that we have reached the pinnacles of technology found in 5th Gen fighters (and soon to be 6th Gen) yet we have humans cheating their bodies by not drinking long before or during flights just because the act of peeing was so awkward and difficult. Issue everyone with Skydrate in-flight bladder relief systems from Omni Defense Technologies to solve this problem.
And then start dealing with the harder issues. Educate pilots to eat properly and learn what works for peak performance, and endurance (long duration combat sorties). Do not leave out Jalapeno Popcorn as one of the fighter pilot essentials for good nutrition! Every fighter pilot who has ever spent time in the US Air Force fighters squadron knows how amazing Jalapeno popcorn is!
There will not be an overwhelming uptake by fighter pilots if they cannot see the benefits from a change of training, diet, hydration and honing their cognitive skills. It is hard enough to be constantly improving our flying skills, weapons knowledge and tactical sense. Putting more burden and education on the plates of pilots who work 12 hour days will not lead to a successful outcome. However changing the conversation and relating human performance to a sports environment is easier to comprehend and fits into our lifestyle. Hence the reference to high end ‘Tactical Athletes’. Move past the pilot-acceptance barrier and it will be easier to create programs that entire units and squadrons will adopt. Even more importantly, young pilots will be educated and will grow up with these behavior changes as lifestyle modifications that will take hold permanently.
The government invests millions to train men and women to be the most lethal and capable fighter pilots on the planet. Yet we have not understood that how they eat, drink and train affects how they fly and most importantly perform in combat. Turning the focus to these areas, investing modest amounts in programs to help them and the outcome will be as positive as we see in sports from those athletes who consistently outperform their peers.
So how do we move forward in the short and medium term? If we want to win against the impossible odds we will face in a China conflict, we best start focusing on getting the maximum capability out of every warrior. Education has to start early in a fighter pilot’s career and support has to be there to help recovery from injuries, how to train the body more effectively, enhancing cognitive resilience and readiness and how to train the body so that it is in peak form when combat happens. Our air forces need to invest in all resources to be 5th Gen powers and move quickly beyond the legacy mindset of our past generation of platforms and pilots.
All of this is low hanging fruit compared to the great task of challenging and defeating China in a near-peer conflict. The harder tasks will be upsizing and upgrading the capabilities of a worn out USAF with the smallest, oldest and least capable fleet in its history. The USN needs its overall force upgraded and capable of engaging in a difficult conflict thousands of miles from the continental US. There is no short term solution to these problems but we can fix the relatively easy issues such as optimizing the performance of the warfighters….that we can do.