The F-35 is Self Aware, Automated and Mission-Centric
Report by Todd Miller
June 6, 2016
Relentless criticism and real-time reporting of any negative development often overshadows the steady progress of the F-35 program and the unprecedented capability of the F-35 platform itself. Many critics simply “don’t know what they don’t know” and attempt to cast the aircraft within the context of air combat (air-to-air and air-to-ground) as it has been, rather than as it will likely be.
Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II utilizes state of the art sensors fused into a war fighting and communication platform that — by itself — is extraordinary. Placed within the 21st Century battlefield, the F-35 will effectively increase the capability of every other weapon system it interacts with. The Lightning II’s genius (airframe, propulsion, sensors, and systems) is software-driven and the estimated eight million lines of code must be meticulously tested and validated prior to being deployed in service. A software glitch can have far greater impact in the context of the F-35 than a personal computer or smartphone! In effect, the stability of the “operating system” or various “Blocks” as they are referred to is continuously improved by fixes. New capabilities are added within each Block, much the same as we experience with our personal phones and computers — at a much higher level of system complexity.
The United States Marine Corps (USMC) declared the F-35Bs “Initial Operational Capability” (IOC) in July 2015, utilizing the software build “Block 2B.” The IOC has provided the opportunity to vet the aircraft for operational deployment, train personnel, and realize greater capability even while addressing operational challenges. The United States Air Force (USAF) plans IOC in mid-2016 with software build “Block 3i” and the United States Navy (USN) plans IOC with “Block F” on their F-35Cs in late 2018. However, as it is with all of today’s frontline aircraft, the F-35 will have software updates bringing new capabilities throughout its projected service life.
A recent visit with members of the F-35 Lightning II Integrated Test Force (ITF) at NAS Patuxent River provided insights into the characteristics, status, and testing methodologies of the two naval variants, the F-35B and C. The ITF includes USN, USMC, United Kingdom (U.K.) Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, and industry teammates. We were privileged to discuss the aircraft and program with Commander Greg Smith, U.K. Technical Lead, Engineer Gordon Stewart of the U.K. Ministry of Defense (MOD), and Andrew Maack, Site Director and Pax River ITF Chief Test Engineer (Andrew was recognized in 2013 with the Test & Evaluation (T&E) Lead Tester Award by the Department of the Navy).
The testing required to ensure integration and validation of flight characteristics is primarily the task of the ITF team at NAS Pax River, while a similar team at Edwards AFB focuses on validation of the mission systems. The participation of international partners adds another level of complexity to the F-35 program. However, as both Maack and Smith expressed, these partners are not “additional” team members on a separate team, but they are fully integrated members filling required test and evaluation roles, with the added responsibility to report back to their nation.
Given the U.K. plans to buy 138 F-35Bs the discussion referenced capabilities of the short take off vertical landing (STOVL) variant. Commander Smith noted that the F-35B utilizes the latest advances in computing power to reduce the complexity required to fly the aircraft. The Harrier (the aircraft the F-35B replaces) required a “veritable dance” by the pilot to manage throttle, nozzle, and flight controls to keep the aircraft in the air, whereas the F-35B does all the “clever stuff” so the pilot can focus on the mission. British pilots have noted that the F-35B is “rather unremarkable to fly” — American translation “very stable, no surprises, very comfortable.” The exceptional flight characteristics enable the pilot to keep his mental capacity focused on the mission, after all, the mission is the only reason the aircraft exists.
The F-35 utilizes automated assistance for landing approach with the innovative (Delta Flight Path) — similar to the F/A-18’s new Maritime Augmented Guidance with Integrated Controls for Carrier Approach and Recovery Precision Enabling Technologies (MAGIC CARPET). The US Navy is also developing the all-weather Joint Precision Approach and Landing System (JPALS) to provide improved aircraft recovery. Combined with the F-35s innovative flight control these two systems will significantly increase the safety of carrier flight operations, free the pilot to focus on mission, and reduce the hours spent in Field Carrier Landing Practice (FCLP) prior to deployment. Beyond increasing mission effectiveness, the aircraft themselves will benefit from fewer hours used in recovery training and fewer hard landings, translating into reduced cost of maintenance and operations.
Maack emphasized the design concept, “The whole idea is about eliminating the need for the intense training level by the pilot to manage the airplane. So the idea is to make the aircraft seamless with the pilot. The aircraft keeps the pilot from getting in a bad situation, the aircraft that manages to get in a bad situation has the ability to recover itself back into the manageable envelope. Some previous aircraft had great capability for those pilots who really knew how to manipulate them, but the consequences for getting it wrong could be very serious. The F-35 pilot is free to ask what he wishes of the airplane and learn what the aircraft can do. Whether in STOVL mode, or in high angle of attack, it is all about carefree handling qualities.”
Stewart noted the advanced intelligence featured by the F-35B when performing the ski jump take off, unique to the U.K. and Italy. “The aircraft knows its weight and center of gravity, it understands all that already, and sets the control surfaces on its own, the pilot essentially points it and launches. When the pilot starts his or her run, they haven’t even told the aircraft to that point that they are doing a ski jump launch. When the F-35B senses the ramp, it understands it is on a ski jump and needs to apply the appropriate control surfaces and executes. A lot of process is automated, the aircraft has a lot of understanding of its current situation and the aircraft uses that to make the task very easy.”
It brings to mind “Skynet” of the Terminator movie series and the moment Skynet becomes “self-aware.” Fortunately, in this case the F-35 is self-aware while remaining safely under control of human mind and hands! While the high level of “self-awareness” is a factor when launching and landing, it is also demonstrated in unprecedented fashion on mission. The very low observable (VLO) characteristics ensure the F-35 is shielded from easy discovery by hostile forces (shrinking hostile surface-to-air engagement zones). Meanwhile, the sensors themselves are detecting and analyzing every emission — SAM sites, aircraft, missile launches, ground vehicles etc. providing the pilot with a real-time picture of everything in the battlespace. Watch your smartphone’s available Wi-Fi spots as you travel about? It’s a little like that, but much more serious business with the F-35 providing specific and critical information.
The exceptional capabilities of the F-35 are particularly relevant as the USAF, USN and USMC prepare for future warfare in a contested or non-permissive environment. Unlike environments such as Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. has enjoyed relatively unchallenged air superiority, the military must prepare for future environments that will involve operating against advanced air defense networks.
The F-35’s sensor fusion provides enhanced situational ensuring a superior OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act) empowering First Look, First Shot, First Kill by the pilot. Designed to operate in the contested environment the F-35 pilot is empowered to make the right decision faster than the adversary ensuring a decisive tactical advantage. The same principles apply to air-to-air combat, with the simple objective to kill the hostile aircraft before it knows you are there — rather than in a “knife fight.” The superior sensors and sensor fusion enable an aircraft that is as much “multi-task” as “multi-role,” performing Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR), air-to-air (A2A) and air-to-ground (A2G) activities all on the same mission without need to land and reconfigure.
We (the non-classified audience) can’t know the extent of the non-kinetic capabilities of the F-35. To what degree can the F-35’s active electronically scanned array radar (AESA) beam high energy to jam signals, destroy electronics or even insert a virus to infiltrate the unprotected emitters of a hostile force? Such a scenario makes Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum’s virus transferring effort in the Hollywood hit “Independence Day” obsolete. We can only speculate regarding the extent of those and other unknown capabilities. However, it is clear that the F-35’s sensor suite delivers unprecedented capabilities for electronic and cyber warfare in a fighter aircraft.
The F-35 is not only a sophisticated Joint Strike Fighter for US Forces, it is making history as a coalition aircraft, with a global supply chain, maintenance infrastructure, and operational synergies including Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs). Integration and communication is unprecedented in the development of this complex weapons system, and while components may be classified on one level or another, the group functions as a single team. Given the broader integration among coalition partners, the F-35 effectively melds all international partners together as an unprecedented coalition air force that will function as a powerful global deterrent.
Looking forward, Smith is confident that the F35B and C programs will meet targets for IOC with Block 3F software. The group is working toward shipborne trials late in 2016 on both the F-35B and C that will include external stores, asymmetric store configurations, evaluation of maximum bring back, and optimization of predictions to ensure maximum aircraft performance.
The significance of the ITF’s achievements is not lost on Smith or Stewart. As Smith notes, it is ultimately gratifying to be on such a team, and to be treated with full responsibilities and respect as a critical team member.
Stewart has experienced great satisfaction in the outcome of his efforts as characterized by the F-35Bs ski jump launch development testing. The first phase of ski jump launches started in June 2015 and ran through October 2015. Launch data was evaluated against the computer models, and subtle changes were recommended to the control laws. Changes were made to the software, applied to the aircraft, and ski jump launches were restarted April 2016. In Stewart’s words, “[t]he opportunity and responsibility to test and influence cutting edge technology — indeed, the most advanced aircraft of our generation — is tremendously rewarding. In years to come, the aircraft will be active in the fleet, and knowing the part we played — that we captured and fixed things before the aircraft went to service — is very rewarding.”
Given the committed professionals working the program on all aspects, there is little doubt the F-35 variants and their capabilities will play a critical role, if not a starring role in the 21st century integrated defense system. If the critics were as self-aware as the F-35, I anticipate their silence in short order.
Photo’s provided by the Lockheed Martin and the F-35 Pax River Integrated Test Force (ITF). Photos include arrestment testing of the CF-03 (F-35C) at JRB Lakehurst, NJ (May 2016) and Air to Air refueling test trials completed with the Royal Air Force A330 (April – May 2016). The joint RAF – Pax River ITF test team completed all of the required day, twilight, and evening test flights one week early, demonstrating the team’s efficiency by accomplishing its test plan in 18 flights rather than the scheduled 20 flights. The test trials generated data for the assessment of the wing pods and the fuselage refueling unit in anticipation of a flight clearance that will support the U.K.’s F-35B Lightning II Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in 2018.