What is the best way to accurately characterize and understand the various costs related to the stealth F-35 over the short, medium, and long term? One thing is for sure, the state-of-the-art joint strike fighter is clearly very different from and superior to an advanced, upgraded fourth-generation fighter like the F/A-18 Hornet, F-16 Fighting Falcon or even the massively reworked F-15EX Eagle II.
But is the margin of difference and superiority sufficient to justify any concerns about long-term costs? Of course, as more F-35 jets are built those costs will decrease. The cost is clearly something Lockheed Martin and the Defense Department are working on, reportedly with significant success. First, there are cost savings associated with needing fewer jets to perform missions that typically require a large number of fourth-generation fighter jets. But also, Lockheed Martin and the Air Force are saving money by streamline and uptick production in order to substantially lower the price per plane.
F-35: A Very, Very Different Fighter
However, what about an examination based purely upon performance? Just how much better is an F-35 jet? I spoke with three F-35 pilots who have years of experience flying both fourth-generation aircraft as well as the F-35 jet. Each of the pilots offered a unique and experienced window into just how different it is to operate an F-35 jet in a war scenario.
Primarily, the ability to see, attack and destroy at beyond line of sight undetectable ranges is a massive advantage unique to an F-35 jet, F-35 pilot Monessa “Siren” Balzhiser, an F-35 production and training pilot for Lockheed Martin told me.
“The F-35 has a magnificent radar that allows you to shoot beyond visual range before any enemy would even detect you,” she said. “So that’s a huge advantage with the fifth-generation fighter.”
However, when it comes to the possibility that an F-35 jet has to engage in more of a close-in fight, its sensors offer newer kinds of positioning data.
F-35 test pilot Chris “Worm” Spinelli spent twenty-four years in the Air Force flying fighter jets such as the F-22 Raptor and F-16 Fighting Falcon before working for Lockheed Martin. He told me that F-35 technology gives pilots an entirely new understanding of where they are in the air in relation to an enemy—something which determines life or death in air-to-air combat.
“In an air-to-air engagement, with a fourth-generation fighter, you’re firing and then maneuvering to help survive a follow-up attack from the enemy aircraft and I can tell you personally, from my own experiences of fighting in the Raptor F-22 and in the F-16, it was very frustrating trying to see,” Spinelli said. “Quite honestly, you never even see [the enemy aircraft], or know what's going on.”
Spinelli said the F-35 jet generates an entirely different “tactical air” picture or “mental model” for pilots needing to know their surroundings in air warfare.
“In a fourth-generation fighter, you have to mentally build that model and then try to make decisions,” Spinelli said. “Of course, that can be challenging depending on how dense the threat environment is regarding both air and ground threats or other threats that may be out there. This is in contrast to an F-35 jet, where you’re seeing a much larger picture, informed by offshore sources as well, and you’re seeing it from your own platform.”
Winning in the air is still, to a large extent, correctly described by the famous former fighter pilot Col. John Boyd’s “OODA Loop” terminology. Through “observation, orientation, decision, action,” pilots can complete the decision “loop” cycle faster than an adversary and destroy their enemies in the air. Speeding up, streamlining, and exponentially improving the OODA Loop process are arguably the most defining elements of F-35 superiority.
Spinelli’s experience flying an F-35 jet draws upon the sensor data processing speed and data fusion of the aircraft, which aligns in concept with Boyd’s OODA Loop.
“You are only as good as the knowledge and information you have, so that to me is one of the big differences,” Spinelli said. “The F-35 enables decision-making that allows you to make hopefully the correct or appropriate tactical decision as the situation dictates . . . and then be able to execute it in the timeline that allows the best probability for your attack to succeed versus the enemy’s attack.”
This knowledge, or “Tactical Air” picture, as described by Spinelli, is brought to life through the often discussed technological synergy and information “fusing” in an F-35 jet. “Sensor fusion,” as it is called, takes otherwise disparate or seemingly separate, unrelated pools of information, performs analyses and organizes it onto a single screen for the pilot. Essentially, pilots don’t have to look at, analyze and compare different sensor systems to get an integrated picture, the aircraft’s computer does that.
“When you look at the radar for the F-35, the electronic warfare 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,” Spinelli said.
Interestingly, all of the data fusion reduces noise in the cockpit, something which better enables pilots to focus on the most pressing things in front of them.
Making the Comparision
Tony “Brick” Wilson, a former U.S. Navy F/A-18 pilot, has spent a lot of time flying the carrier-launched F-35C, is well-positioned to compare fourth to fifth-generation aircraft.
“One of the biggest differences that jumps out is how quiet it is in the cockpit,” Wilson, who now works for Lockheed Martin as the Chief of Fighter Flight Operations (F-35 Test Pilot), told me. “Depending on what the threats are, a lot of the errors that may be made while airborne are predominantly due to misheard comms, either not hearing a crucial piece of information or missing a crucial piece of information.”
Part of the decrease in noise and distraction, Wilson explained, is due to the extent to which individual systems are gathered, organized, streamlined in a collective or integrated fashion.
“In the F-35, we carry all of our sensor suites all the time,” Wilson said. “Couple that with sensor fusion and you have the opportunity to listen to some of the engagements, but it’s still very quiet because that sensor fusion is presenting the information to the pilot in such a manner that a lot of comms is not needed.”
Overall, the ability to find, see and destroy enemy targets without being seen or destroyed determines life or death in air combat. Given this simple equation, all three pilots seemed to agree that perhaps the greatest advantage of the F-35 jet is in fact “sensor fusion.”
“The biggest difference between fourth-generation fighters for me was with the fourth generation, I was always managing all the different systems, from electronic warfare to the weapons to the radar to any kind of targeting pod, any kind of sensor I had,” Balzhiser said. “I was 100 percent focused on making sure they were all integrated within my own cockpit in the fourth generation. . . . Whereas what I've seen in the F-35 is that it's all done for you.”
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.