The Creation of the F-35 Global Enterprise

By George J. Trautman III

My first experience with Robbin Laird occurred over fifteen years ago when I was assigned as the U.S. Marine Corps Deputy Commandant for Aviation. Throughout the course of our professional relationship, I have watched him become one of the world’s foremost proponents of Fifth-Generation warfare. His unique role in studying the global impact of the Aegis Combat System, the V-22 Osprey, and the F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter through the eyes of military operators has placed him at the forefront of the revolution in military affairs.

This book describes his Fifth-Generation journey primarily through the lens of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Like most cutting-edge technologies, the F-35 has borne the brunt of unfair criticism and a lack of understanding about what the aircraft brings to the Fifth-Generation fight.

During its development only a few visionaries like Robbin and former Secretary of the Air Force, Michael Wynne, to whom this book is dedicated, were prescient enough to see that Fifth-Generation had the potential to change everything. Mired in two ongoing land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Presidents Obama and Trump, Senators like John McCain, and a series of Defense Secretaries often seemed to treat Fifth-Generation and the F-35 as a “residue of worn-out cold war thinking.”

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth – and Robbin Laird lays out the reasons why the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Marine Corps, and a select few coalition partners would simply not be deterred in making the program into the success that it is today.

There are many incredible stories that make this book worth reading. The role of the Marine Corps as an unexpected champion of Fifth-Generation warfare and the many challenges the service faced in keeping the F-35B Short Takeoff and Landing (STOVL) variant alive is a remarkable indication of perseverance within an often-dysfunctional defense acquisition system.

The role of U.S. Air Force senior leaders, including Secretary Wynne and a series of very capable Air Combat Command (ACC) Commanders, in educating the Joint Force on the value of Fifth-Generation is evident throughout the journey. The F-22 and F-35 aircraft would not be in the U.S. arsenal today if not for the vision of those who lead the most capable Air Force in history – and readers will come to appreciate that fact through a series of insightful interviews.

Similarly, the F-35 has benefited from the participation of key coalition partners, especially Australia, the United Kingdom, Italy, Norway, and Israel – all covered here. Robbin skillfully navigates the complexities of international collaboration, illustrating the F-35’s role as a symbol of partnership in an increasingly interconnected world.

The essence of Fifth-Generation warfighting lies in its fusion of advanced technologies, information dominance, and adaptable tactics, revolutionizing the art of combat. To help the naysayers understand just what that sentence means, Robbin includes one of my favorite analogies often told by LtCol Chip Berke, USMC. According to Chip, “When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, he said it was revolutionary for it combined a computer, with a music player, with a phone. Jobs repeated this several times in the rollout presentation, but I doubt anyone would describe the iPhone that way today. Instead, it’s the ecosystem that grew up around the iPhone and with which the phone itself has matured that is revolutionary, not simply the phone.”

The same is true of the F-35. The aircraft itself is revolutionary, but it’s the Fifth-Generation ecosystem that represents the epitome of human ingenuity, engineering brilliance, and unwavering determination.

Robbin’s ability to capture the perspectives of the key players, from pilots to maintainers and logisticians, provides a comprehensive and insightful account of this revolutionary aircraft. Moreover, the book uncovers the geopolitical implications of Fifth-Generation warfighting capabilities.

As nations seek to assert their dominance and secure their interests, the strategic implications of these technologies ripple across the global stage. Through a series of personal essays and skilled interviews with those who understand the aircraft, My Fifth-Generation Journey: 2004-2018 deftly navigates through this complex web, painting a vivid picture of how Fifth-Generation warfighting will shape the future geopolitical landscape.

George J. Trautman III

LtGen, USMC (Ret)

Former USMC Deputy Commandant for Aviation