For 30 years post-Cold War, we have heard that the large-scale conflicts are history, that heavily armored battle tanks no longer needed and asymmetric warfare was the future. Big armies and highly sophisticated fighter jets and bombers were over-kill for what would be needed in the future. Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine has killed those conversations. If we are lucky, we will enter a new Cold War; if unlucky, the future will be far worse. When we look into the future of warfare and what is needed to be effective, lethal and survive in highly contested conflicts, the most sophisticated stealth fighter in the world is the only logical choice. Germany decided in favor of the F-35 and Canada is next.
Germany’s announcement to procure up to 35 F-35As for the Luftwaffe to assume the nuclear delivery role that the aging Tornado has flown for many years adds yet another European country to the long list of F-35 users. I was in Berlin some years ago when the F-35 first made a push in Germany briefing the press about its capabilities. The German Defense Minister at the time succumbed to pressure from a proposed French German ‘6th Gen’ fighter proposal plus pushback from the Eurofighter consortium and subsequently shut down any conversation about the F-35 coming to Germany. The fallout of that included the firing of the Commander of the German Air Force who had advocated for 5th Gen. Times have changed, F-35 is back in without a competition ever happening. So now Germany is added to the list of European nations: Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Finland, UK (sort of European) and soon enough will be Spain and Greece. The US and soon to be Canada gets added to a NATO list. I know that Finland not part of NATO yet, but you get the point.
Why is it powerful to have everyone flying the same data-gathering spaceship in the coming years? Seamless interoperability is the term.
For Germany and Canada, the F-35 drops into an Ecosystem that has already been crafted and is being populated by the non-US F-35 users. The globalization of F-35 brings 5th Gen capabilities and a new level of interoperability not imagined with legacy 4/4.5 Gen platforms. F-35 users share knowledge not just data. The many dimensions of F-35 drives integration into all elements of military services, leveraging what the F-35 is capable. Imagine the shield of deterrence in Europe and Asia from the non-US services matching the USAF/USMC/USN fleets. This umbrella will not be equaled by any adversary for many years. While many wondered if the F-35 could ever deliver on the promises made 20 years ago, I doubt anyone ever understood the compounding effect of so many air forces buying into F-35 and how it has transformed aerial warfare.
In the supersonic-paced conduct of war, we need everyone speaking exactly the same language, understanding exactly the same data at exactly the same speed. We cannot be translating for the non-F-35 pilots what is happening on the battlefield when there are S-300s, S-400s and S-500 Surface-to-Air missiles (SAMs) below us as we weave our way around the threats to deliver our weapons and take out the enemy. We can’t be coddling to the 4.5 Gen fighters who are threatened long before they cross into enemy territory by the SAM radars that see them 150 Km away because they are not VLO (stealth) fighters and have only their electronic warfare defensive systems to protect them. We cannot be spending our efforts to keep them safe when we are flying in the most contested airspace in modern warfare.
We need everyone to operate a stealth fighter, using the same tactics to avoid being detected, not emitting tons of electronic energy from our fighters (which makes it easy for the enemy to detect us). We need to share sophisticated data back and forth between F-35 fighters in our formations with our stealthy datalink systems. That data sharing allows all the F-35s in a formation to know exactly what every other jet sees and hears (electronically) to build the air picture dramatically more comprehensive and all-knowing than could ever be imagined in the non-F-35 jets. That means that every F-35 pilot knows everything that the other pilots know for many, many kilometers in front, off to the sides and even behind the formations. Only a fraction of that Situational Awareness (SA) can be gathered in the non-F-35 fighters.
For many years I have traveled the globe debating the capabilities of advanced fighters, especially F-35, with friends and peers from other aircraft manufacturers.
“You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know” best describes trying to explain context to pilots, engineers and marketers who have no insight into the level of SA and knowledge that I saw in the F-35 that I flew every day.
Interoperability between fighters has its roots in the teaming of NATO Air Forces based in Europe over those many decades of the Cold War. Air Forces would conduct squadron-level exchanges of different countries flying different fighters to learn more about how each other operate. We would regularly fly to different air bases, and have their ground crew service our jets, give us fuel and send us back in the air, to familiarize them with our particular jets and maintenance requirements. The best forum for understanding how to operate with other air forces was attending the Tactical Leadership Programme (TLP). Hosted at different bases in Europe over the years, TLP was a one-month crash course in flying with other nations and building on the theme of interoperability. Aircrew would deploy with their own ground crew and logistics support to the TLP base, where the pilots would learn, plan and fly progressively more sophisticated (and hard) scenarios versus more capable adversaries as the course progressed. I attended TLP in 1986 with the CF-18 before the Canadian Hornet community knew anything about true multi-role and especially air-to-air roles in Europe. We were sponges taking in everything we could from the instructors (from many different NATO nations) and other flyers. In our case, the product that we came back home with led to the introduction of air-to-air tactics for the CF-18 community far beyond the NORAD tactics that we had inherited in those early days. TLP remains an invaluable tool for teaching interoperability amongst the NATO nations.
And here we are, on the edge of a new Cold War where NATO nations need to fly together to manage highly lethal threats in the air and from the ground. We need to leverage the best of our capabilities not nurse the ‘Have Nots’ to conduct warfare. Train like you fight…fight like you train. That means upping the game for everyone and expecting only the most survivable and capable fighters to be used. F-35 flown by all nations will ensure that we are all operating a fighter that can survive in the worst of environments, deliver the weapons or spy on the enemy without being detected and be more effective complementing each other’s efforts. F-35 in combat is like playing football except our team is invisible and theirs isn’t. For so many years, we have heard about how incredibly potent the F-22 has been in peacetime exercises. I have posted often about how capable the F-35 has been in these same exercises since its early years. There is a complete silence from the Non-stealth crowd since the Ukraine war broke out. Everyone, even in Canada, gets it now. So many Russian-built fighters have been shot down on both sides, in one case apparently targeted from more than 150 KM away with a SAM, that we all understand how it would be unthinkable and suicidal to send a 4th Gen fighter into that conflict. No stealth means no fly.
F-35 it is. Everyone flying the same jet, speaking the same language, sharing the same data, surviving and coming home each time. That’s what seamless interoperability is.