Recrafting the Fighter role

By Robbin Laird

It’s clear that combat capabilities and operations are being recrafted across the globe and, as operational contexts change, the evolution of the role of fighters is at the center of that shift. This year’s International Fighter Conference held in Berlin provided a chance to focus on the role of fighters in the strategic shift from land wars to higher intensity operations. The baseline assumption for the conference can be simply put: air superiority can no longer be assumed, and needs to be created in contested environments.

Competitors like China and Russia are putting significant effort into shaping concepts of operations and modernizing force structures which will allow them to challenge the ability of liberal democracies to establish air superiority and to dominate future crises.

There was a clear consensus on this point, but, of course, working the specifics of defeating such an adversary brings in broader concepts of force design and operations. While the air forces of liberal democracies all face the common threat of operating in contested airspace, the preferred solutions vary greatly from one nation to another, so the conference worked from that common assumption rather than focusing on specific solutions.

The coming of the F-35 global enterprise is a clear force for change. In one presentation, a senior RAF officer outlined how the UK would both contribute to and benefit from the F-35 global enterprise. “The future is now,” he began, as he laid out how he saw interactions among F-35 partners in shaping common and distinctive approaches to air power modernization driven by the introduction of the F-35.


Echoing the “future is now” sentiment, former Chief of Staff of the RAAF and now Chairman of the Williams Foundation, Geoff Brown, provided an overview of how the selection of the F-35 and its introduction in the force is part of a significant shift in the Australian Defence Force to a fifth-generation force. The retired Air Marshal argued that buying an advanced plane and “getting on with it” is both crucial and cost-effective. “70% of your cost is about maintaining, supporting and modernizing your airplane. Why would you want to do that with a legacy jet when you can buy a fifth-gen jet?”

A senior USAF officer involved with F-35 integration highlighted the efforts in working integration both on the level of the MADL-enabled F-35 force, and that force with the legacy force. His baseline point was that the F-35 is operating globally now, and that the USAF is working with its service and global partners on both the ability of the F-35 as a unique fleet to operate together as well as through its link capabilities, notably generated by the software designed and enabled CNI system to work with other assets as well.

He affirms it is clearly a work in progress and that the “sensor fusion” of the force is in its infancy, in terms of being informed by, and driven by, the F-35 as a combat aircraft. In his words: “The aircraft works well in terms of sensor fusion,” and says they are focused on “the journey to mature its effects as an air system on the overall force.”

Scott “Shark” McLaren, an experienced USAF test pilot, explained what sensor fusion means to the combat pilot. The combat-proven F-16 pilot had shifted to the F-35, and ably addressed the core question of: What does situational awareness look like for the F-35 pilot, and what does it mean for his combat prowess?

In simple terms, the 4th generation pilot fuses the data from his on-board systems to operate against a specific combat task, and is dependent on what his network can deliver in terms of broader sensor fusion.

The F-35 pilot, on the other hand, has SA provided from sensor fusion machines on-board his aircraft rather than having to rely on networks and he focuses on shaping tasks crucial to missions in the combat space. That pilot can then work with the integration from the unique data network provide for the low observable jet through the MADL data system to then operate as a core combat force. The cluster of F-35s can then provide networking enhancement to other aircraft in the force or, when low observability is not the primary requirement, can leverage broader networks.

What becomes clear, is that the evolution of legacy fighters (mostly referred to as fourth-generation) is a key part of the evolution of the response to operating in contested airspace. This is a major focus of attention for any of the air forces introducing the F-35, and is clearly of concern for a legacy force like the French Air Force which does not intend to buy an F-35.

The question becomes, how will the different legacy fleets adapt to the F-35, and what will their tactical and strategic contributions be as they adapt to the evolving strategic environment? There is also a key dynamic of change for what are referred to as the “big wing” aircraft such as AWACS and the various ISR aircraft. Generally, there is a major shift in how command and control (C2) will be done as fighters and their connected brethren work together to deliver the desired effects in the 21st century contested battlespace.

Key Questions

Where is sensor fusion done? Where will decisions be taken? Who will deliver them? How will different air forces connect in distributed operations in contested airspace? With what systems and means?

As multi-domain operations (the ability to deliver effects throughout the entire combat force with fighters playing various roles, C2, ISR, strike) come to dominate, will platforms be designed to enhance overall capabilities of the combat force?

Put another way, how will legacy aircraft evolve to the challenge of dealing with contested airspace while also contributing to multi-domain operations that is becoming a primary driver of change for the air combat force?

A European counter-perspective was juxtaposed to the fifth-generation shift, and this was the idea of preparing for a new combat fighter for 2040, which the French and the Germans refer to as a Future Combat Air System.

The FCAS approach can be looked at two very different ways. One is to look at the end state as a target on which modernization is focused. Here the notion is that the system or the networks will provide multi-platform and multi-node capabilities to deliver the combat effects required to operate and prevail in contested airspace.

The focus is less on what organically can be delivered by a proposed new fighter than on its ability to interact with other platforms to deliver the desired combat effect.

A second but correlated way to look at it is to shape a building process whereby key elements are identified, designed and built through the next 20 years, and operationally introduced into the relevant European combat force in anticipation of the fighter to be designed through an open-ended process with the design closure affected by that learning curve.

A case in point was provided by Bruno Fichefeux, Head of the FCAS Programme in Airbus Defence and Space. The broad point is that, in the future, the manned fighter will be working with remote combat systems and teaming capability as the core competence. This requires developing and evolving sophisticated software and teaming concepts of operations to work with any future fighter.

Fichefeux mentioned in his brief that Airbus Defence and Space had recently demonstrated the manned-unmanned teaming approach in a dynamic display to a wider audience in order to visualize the obvious benefits it has for air warfare already today.

After the presentation, I had a chance to sit down with him to discuss how that experiment laid down a building block for the future. He explained that Airbus put a core software development team together to work on the integration necessary for a manned aircraft to work a team of remotes to execute a variety of missions.

The focus was on the pilot in the cockpit setting the tasks and passing that task off to the swarm of remote carriers, which then would distribute among themselves and execute autonomously. The team worked for a year preparing for the experiment, which was conducted about a month ago over the Baltic Sea. The software development team used off-the-shelf drones and equipment.

Five drones were flown in formation flight with a C2 manned aircraft, which provided real-time mission tasking. “The pilot is not piloting the drones; he is just giving the swarm a High Level command which then sort out their mission allocation among themselves. You give the machines the task and then it executes.”

As the tasking requires only a minimum of attention from the pilot, the teaming has far more benefits than costs. Customers were invited to the experiment, and asked to set unplanned tasks during the course of the experiment, underscoring the flexibility of the software rather than having a scripted pre-programmed event. The capability demonstrated by Airbus will be a core one for them going forward.

RCAF of the Future

It is within this general focus on operating in contested airspace and the strategic shift in airpower to operate in new conditions that a senior Canadian Air Force addressed the Canadian approach of Canada. Chatham house rules were followed at the conference and unless I did an interview with a particular speaker, the speakers remain unnamed.

The Canadian officer clearly embraced the core point of the conference, namely, the need to operate in a much different combat air environment. He underscored that the operational environment was becoming more lethal and complex, in which advanced fighters would need to be able to operate in an anti-access area denial surface-to-air missile environment, with cyber threats, contested control of the electro magnetic spectrum, and in the presence of the proliferation of technologically advanced equipment.

Canada faces a number of funding and commitment challenges to deal with the new strategic situation.

To operate in this environment with its allies and to contribute to NATO capability, as well as to defend Canada, the RCAF would clearly need an upgrade across the force, both the joint and the combat air force. This new force would consist of several new platforms, which clearly would need to operate in a teaming context such as described by both the F-35 and Airbus representatives.

The RCAF of the future is projected to consist of 88 new advanced fighter aircraft; a next generation multi-mission aircraft (CP-140 replacement); a next generation air-to-air tanker transport; new utility transport aircraft; a range of remotely piloted systems; and integrated space capabilities within the combat force (global satellite communications, surveillance of space and ISR).

Interestingly, this officer focused on a key challenge – one that is often overlooked, but where the RCAF can lead the way, not just for Canada but in terms of working with the British, the Americans and Pacific allies in terms of training for operations in the extended battlespace. He noted that the Canadian Forces Aerospace Warfare Centre (CFAWC) is currently developing the RCAF way ahead related to exercises and training – with Live Virtual Constructive Training being key to this. And they are doing so in an intelligent fashion, starting with near term virtual add-ons to Exercise Maple Flag, and laying the foundation for a continuing transformation effort for training of Canadian and allied air forces.

He identified a number of opportunities that can be developed and leveraged by the RCAF. These included: Cold Lake Air Weapons Range project, the Future Lead-in Trainer project, the Future Fighter Capability Project, the Future Aircrew Training (FAcT) project (mentioned elsewhere in this edition), and leveraging the Distributed Mission Operations Centre.

In short, significant innovation will characterize the way ahead as peer competitors confront each other and adjust to each other’s capabilities and performance in combat. The decade of innovation ahead will clearly lay the foundation for the next.

First published by Front Line Defence.

The featured photo shows CF-188 Hornet aircraft returning to Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, Romania during Operation Reassurance. (Photo: Cpl Dominic Duchesne-Beaulieu)

October 2018.