Why the F-35 is a force multiplier and accelerant in the next generation battlespace
By John Conway
This feature focuses on human factors and recent experience of air combat to explain why the F-35 is a force multiplier and accelerant in the next generation battlespace. Building upon decades of lessons learned on operations and in training, it provides a historical perspective on why the F-35 prioritises certain functions above others, and how humans have learned to better use information to improve cognitive performance in fast, complex, non-linear processes such as air combat.
Modern machines can do most of the physical things faster and better than humans, and artificial intelligence (AI) is emerging as an increasingly decisive technology field. But despite our limitations, we must still think, predict and make the decisions with superior situational awareness created by information advantage the key to operational success. For it is in the mind that we make sense of information and the environment and where decisions are made, and battles are won and lost.
The acceleration of warfare is axiomatic with the acceleration of the information flows which characterise 5th generation warfare. This is critical because this increase in speed helps seize the initiative and avoids the defensive and energy-sapping postures from which it is almost impossible to escape.
The acceleration of information flows for 5th generation systems such as the F-35, is about more than just radios and data links – communication with other platforms and sensors in the physical battlespace is but one aspect. The most decisive effects are the result of a sophisticated interaction between people and the platform which is changing the way we think about and comprehend the emerging operational environment.
In recognition, the Royal Australian Air Force launched Plan Jericho in 2015 to prepare for the organisational-level acceleration which accompanies the arrival of 5th generation capability, with the impact now being experienced across multiple elements of the joint force.
In his Futures Statement entitled Accelerated Warfare released in August 2018, Chief of Army LTGEN Rick Burr describes accelerated warfare in terms of the operating environment and how we respond. In it, he says, “Accelerated Warfare provides the start-state for how we think, equip, train, educate, organise and prepare for war. This is a critical step in becoming future-ready.”
Becoming future-ready means being able to sense, make sense, and decide faster than an adversary since advantage in the battlespace lies with the first decider. However, much of the subsequent conversation continues to focus upon the physical platforms, projects and the wisdom or otherwise of spending $15 billion on infantry fighting vehicles (IFV), such as the Boxer.
Discussion about the IFV platform has focused on its vulnerability to a new generation of threats, with little mention of how it is going to contribute decisively to joint warfighting and provide a cornerstone for Army innovation, experimentation and creativity in the decades to come.
In this sense, it is no different to the F-35 JSF program. Even now, critics and lobbyists still default to comparisons with the F-22 Raptor, and describe the F-35 in terms of “troubled” or “controversial”, rather than transformational and now, combat proven. They ignore the F-35’s debut at the world’s most complex large-scale training event – Red Flag – where it reportedly achieved an unprecedented twenty-to-one kill ratio.
Yet to measure the F-35 simply in terms of platform performance misses the point entirely. One of the key reasons the JSF program has survived the global financial crisis, sequestration, highly-paid lobbyists, and others with a colourful variety of pecuniary interests is that it promotes the new approach to warfare needed to succeed in the information age, and delivers capability which can be measured directly in terms of its contribution to joint operations.
The lethal characteristics of platforms and the communications and network systems that connect them are the easiest to visualise, and provide us with a true and reassuring representation of the physical state of the environment. The information domain facilitates the communication between these participants in the battlespace, and it is from where information is created from data, and subsequently shared.
But because information can be manipulated, it may or may not provide a true representation of the environment which introduces ambiguity and complexity into an engagement through the minds of those participants.
This is the cognitive domain which is home to human perceptions, beliefs, values, awareness and understanding, and from where decisions are ultimately made. And it is at the interfaces between the physical, information and cognitive domains where the F-35 and other advanced weapons systems excel, with awareness and understanding the product of technology and humans working as a team.
The F-35’s key contribution to a joint force is its prolific ability to share information and to profoundly accelerate the combat decision-making processes, especially targeting. Targeting is the golden thread which integrates the effort to combine the intelligence, political, legal, environmental, technological, conceptual and moral factors into the way western democracies plan and execute engagements. It enables a sophisticated, rules-based, human interaction with warfare, and accelerates the decision-making process to compensate for those adversaries who do not play by our rules. It allows us to do the ‘right’ thing, even in the ‘fog of war’.
Despite lacking the power and thoroughbred performance of its stable-mate in a pure air-to-air combat role, the F-35’s ability to share information is far greater than the F-22, making it a more lethal joint partner in this new environment.
In the modern battlespace, superior platform performance alone is not enough; networked, force level capability is the goal enabling much higher-order cognitive functions benefiting everyone.
It allows you to see and make sense of the bigger picture, the indicators and warnings that predict an adversary’s command intent, thereby allowing you to become the first decider.
That said, simply acting as a node in a network is not a good enough reason to buy a 5th generation platform; the important aspect is the additional value which is brought to the whole force by virtue of enhanced connectivity, sensors, and human cognitive performance.
This is where systems such as the F-35 as well as Wedgetail AEW&C, Boxer CRV, Hobart class Aegis DDGs and others increase lethality, by cooperatively working with each other to deliver engagement outcomes far greater than the sum of the constituent parts. Engagement outcomes where technology enables shared situational awareness by allowing data from sensors distributed across an entire force to be combined into a single, real-time, superior quality, composite track.
As important as it is for individual platforms to fully play their part with sensors and weapons contributing to the network, it is also critical to understand that human cognitive performance is likely to be the lowest common denominator in an engagement, thereby introducing operational risk.
There is much the broader defence community can learn from the evolution of the JSF. Not least is the elegant way it makes a disciplined and sophisticated assessment of the battlespace to cultivate situational awareness, make sense of a highly-complex environment, and so accelerate the decision-making process.
This is because the JSF is the embodiment of decades of operational experience and air combat research and experimentation which has demonstrated unequivocally that a better perception of the environment underpins information advantage, and it makes you future-ready. This is the same experience and research which has urged us to stop fixating solely on the physical attributes of the force, particularly platforms, and start prioritising data-fusion and human-to-machine information flows to build situational awareness and stay ahead of the game.
PROJECTING FUTURE STATUS
Before situational awareness was adopted by engineers and scientists in the 1990s, it was widely used by fighter aircrew based on combat experience in the Korean and Vietnam wars. USAF pilots and Weapon Systems Officers (WSOs) were the first to equate situational awareness, or SA, with the first two phases of the observe-orient-decide-act loop (OODA loop), as introduced into common military thinking by USAF strategist Col John Boyd.
SA became the centrepiece of air warfare concepts and doctrine, and the methodology for making sense of a highly-dynamic environment where the ability to predict an adversary’s likely course of action invariably resulted in operational success. This period also marked a more sophisticated integration of intelligence into air operations which continues to this day, with technology allowing an increasing number of processes to be automated thereby accelerating the development of SA in systems such as the F-35.
The most widely used theoretical framework of SA was provided by Dr Mica Endsley in 1995 when she described it in three stages of its formation: the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status.
Dr Endsley was formerly Chief Scientist for the USAF and, as the first human factors engineer, was pivotal in translating the concept of SA into human-to-machine interface requirements for sophisticated avionics and weapons systems. The need to accelerate the development of SA galvanised thinking between aircrew and engineers, and introduced data fusion and human factors as requirements just as important as platform performance, sensors and payloads.
SA introduced a new trade-off into the fighter aircraft requirements process. When the budgets began to shrink, human science and engineering, backed up by combat experience voted unanimously for more SA.
One such trade-off was the rapid development of helmet-mounted display systems to augment and ultimately replace aircraft head-up displays (HUD), allowing the weapons rather than the platforms to do the hard manoeuvring in an air combat ‘dogfight’ to the point where any target seen or sensed by the pilot could be attacked regardless of where the aircraft was heading.
Meanwhile, essential environmental and target information projected directly on to the visor of the helmet provides constant visual and aural indicators and warnings to the pilot about what is happening and what is likely to happen, rather than providing the information through multiple specialist displays positioned around a traditional cockpit.
To that end, the F-35 has become the first modern tactical fighter jet to fly without the need for a HUD, because its helmet mounted display (HMD) provides the pilot with unrivalled levels of SA fed by 360-degree coverage from multiple fused sensors, even allowing the pilot to visualise the battlespace beneath his or her feet through the aircraft’s floor.
This is a technological advancement driven by decades of experience which has proven time and again that an information deficit and a lack of SA hands the initiative and advantage to the adversary whom, more often than not, arrives as an unwelcome surprise.
One of the best open-source analyses of SA in the context of air combat was written by Barry D. Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), in his paper ‘Clausewitzian Friction and Future War’. Watts’ observations draw upon data collected from operational experience and, more convincingly, are scientifically derived from operational evaluations of weapons systems such as the AMRAAM dating back to 1981.
Watts observed that, “Air combat experience going at least back to World War II suggests that surprise in the form of the unseen attacker has been pivotal in three-quarters or more of the kills…if some 80 per cent of the losses have resulted from aircrews being unaware that they were under attack until they either were hit or did not have time to react effectively, then a relative deficit of situation awareness has been the root-cause of the majority of losses in actual air-to-air combat.”
Insightfully, as well as explaining the downside risks, Watts also identified the positive and creative aspects of better SA which chime with the intent of Plan Jericho, and with the Chief of Army’s sentiments in his Futures Statement, “The generation of new possibilities by dint of one’s own initiative, creativity, quickness, and, above all, interaction with the opposing side.”
That said, to predict the F-35 will achieve unambiguous clarity within the ‘fog of war’ would be disingenuous, and building and maintaining SA has always been a critical operational challenge – not just for aircrew. The information age battlespace introduces additional complexity to the decision-making processes with the electromagnetic spectrum and cyberspace being exploited as new warfighting domains and opportunities to deceive.
Yet experience, once again, reminds us the human factor will always be a central feature of military planning and operations, with chaos and uncertainty more than keeping pace with the emergence of new technology.
THE EDGE OF CHAOS
Technology, of course, plays its part in mission success and Watts spells out the benefits of superior platform technology in his paper, “During Desert Storm, F–15Cs, aided in most cases by E–3A Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft, downed 28 Iraqi fighters without a single loss.”
This included 15 kills from engagements that began with shots fired beyond visual range (BVR) and, for a brief period, the USAF enjoyed total air dominance further enhanced by the arrival of LINK 16-enabled JTIDS. Watts continues, “When JTIDS-equipped F-15s flew against basically the same fighter/AWACS combination that had done so well in the Gulf War, the JTIDS ‘information advantage’ enabled them to dominate their opponents by exchange ratios of four-to-one or better.”
As mentioned earlier, the F-35 has extended this advantage to a 20-1 kill-ratio providing further evidence during complex training events that enhanced SA, information advantage, and success go hand-in-hand. However, cognitive performance during actual air combat engagements introduces additional human factors difficult to replicate in training.
In recent years, BVR engagements have become less common as multi-domain operations have become increasingly integrated and rules of engagement (ROE) more complex and restrictive. Thus, translating air dominance on paper to operational reality has become more challenging.
In many cases this change has been accelerated by ‘friendly fire’ incidents, often caused by low SA, involving both fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missile systems. This has seen an increased emphasis on force protection and the avoidance of fratricide or ‘blue on blue’ engagements which, in turn, has increased the demand for target discrimination and combat identification capability.
Solving this problem through the targeting function has been a key design feature of the F-35, providing a universal benefit to the joint force and a means of managing the catastrophic risks associated with fratricide by easing the cognitive overload associated with combat engagements and, in particular, air combat within visual range of an adversary or proximity to friendly forces.
While open-source detail of actual air combat engagements over the past 25 years is scarce, informal discussions with aircrew involved describe scenarios where, despite starting with the advantage of having superior aircraft and longer-range weapon systems such as the AMRAAM, the engagement invariably descended into a chaotic race to visually identify the target before it engaged you.
In all cases, Clauswitzian friction slowed down the targeting process to deny BVR engagements, and produce a highly undesirable level playing field to the point where mission success came down to a marginal cognitive edge. As Watts describes, “Statistically, though, the outcome of any particular engagement most often hinged on very small differences here or there across a large set of interrelated human and hardware factors, and the dominant of these factors was situation awareness.”
Future warfare is unlikely to be so forgiving. We should anticipate future adversaries will be equipped and trained to a far higher standard than those encountered over the past two decades, and that they are unlikely to have ROE anywhere near as restrictive as ours.
Our relative advantage is constantly being eroded, but there is much that can be done with the arrival of the F-35 to maintain a capability edge by continuing to focus on high-end force level integration and training and getting the balance of investment right between technology and people.
TRAINING FOR INFORMATION ADVANTAGE
The increased emphasis on information advantage rather than tactical platform superiority has had a profound impact on tactics, techniques and procedures (TTP) in recent years, with transformational change most obvious in the development of advanced training systems to replicate the complexity of the next-generation battlespace.
But an over-reliance on the technical aspects of information exchange still captivates many. It distracts from the role of critical thinking and the importance of education, training and experience in developing the human cognitive function, especially when operating in an environment where communications are degraded or even denied.
In these circumstances it is the neural pathways established in training which provide the essential cognitive foundations to allow humans to build SA and continue to perform in combat operations. So while many commentators still grapple with defence policy and strategy trying to make sense of a rapidly changing context, there is one priority which must remain front and centre in any future investment plan, and that is high-end operational training.
The technical mastery which has characterised the ADF for decades must now translate to the force level, and build a better collective understanding of human factors and SA as an enabler for command and mission success. Introducing complexity into training will require new training range technologies with an insatiable demand for mission data – live and simulated, manned and unmanned – and greater levels of integration with intelligence and ISR systems both in the air and on the ground.
Moreover, it will need to provide new experiences requiring a greater emphasis on human cognition and decision-making in high intensity engagements, and a greater understanding of the critical relationship between people, information and machines in the race to become the first decider.
Speed is an enduring characteristic of air power, and applies as much to the decision-making processes as it does to the weapon systems themselves. The F-35 has been designed from first principles to operate in the complex and ambiguous environment which characterises the information age, prioritising targeting as a process above most others.
And while it can share its information with others across the joint battlespace, it also has the potential to overwhelm humans unfamiliar with the speed and intensity of the high technology warfare that has characterised the evolution of air combat engagements over the past 40 years. The interconnected battlespace is bringing combat support aircraft and the broader joint force into a high speed multi-dimensional fight, where information both enables and deceives at the speed of light, and in quantities not previously imagined.
Ready or not, the F-35 and the future has arrived, and things are about to get a whole lot faster.