The state-of-the-art F-35 stealth fighter is truly one of a kind and well known for its stealth characteristics, weapons, costs, extensive development, and multinational force. The jet, however, has many lesser-known attributes which could arguably serve as a defining reason for its superiority.
Two words may sum this up almost completely: sensing and computing.
I recently had a chance to do some exclusive interviews with several F-35 pilots. Each of the pilots overwhelmingly explained that the sensing, computing, and data “fusing” on board the jet is truly the way in which the aircraft separates itself from others.
The F-35’s “sensor fusion” refers to a data analysis and organization process that uses early iterations of artificial-intelligence-enabled computing and integrates key information from otherwise separated data streams onto a single screen for the pilot. The computerized process enables pilots to view navigational data, mission details, targeting information, and threat data all on a single screen for the pilot, thus easing the cognitive burden.
Several of the pilots I spoke with had extensive experience flying fourth-generation aircraft and were, therefore, well-positioned to understand how the F-35 jet might compare.
For instance, Chris “Worm” Spinelli, an F-35 test pilot for Lockheed Martin, spent twenty-four years in the Air Force.
“When I first got into the F-35—and even still today—the biggest, game-changing difference that I've seen specifically for the person in the cockpit, the decisionmaker, the pilot is the F-35’s fusion and integration of all of the different sensors from the aircraft,” Spinelli said. “It brings together a holistic picture that's quite amazing. This was never, never seen before on any fourth-generation platform. I don’t care what people say, or what widgets or gizmos they have. I would even say it rivals the F-22. Although I haven’t seen everything that the F-22 has on it. . . . When you look at the radar for the F-35, the electronic warfare (EW) system and then, of course, the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) combining it all together, that to me was the biggest difference between the F-35 and the legacy F-16s or F-18s.”
Another F-35 pilot told me that the “sensor fusion” process enables pilots to take on additional tactical functionality because much of the procedural work is automatically done for them. Sensor fusion, F-35 pilot Tony “Brick” Wilson told me, “reduces pilot workload and allows the pilots to have a situational ‘bubble’ so that they’re more than just a pilot and they’re more than a sensor manager. They’re true tacticians. The fact that the pilot has the spare capacity increases survivability and makes them more lethal,” Wilson is Lockheed Martin’s chief of Fighter Flight Operations.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Image: Flickr / U.S. Air Force