Understanding Fighter Plane Evolution: Leveraging the Cell Phone Analogy

By Billie Flynn

The discussion of new fighters is never really understood by the public, media, or politicians.  To so many, a fighter jet is a loud, grey, fast, menacing looking piece of metal.  All fighter jets fly at supersonic speeds, they shoot missiles and drop bombs when needed.  Some look more futuristic than others and some even have fancy paint jobs when we see them fly at airshows.  What is not distinguishable to the public, is the capability and survivability when those fighter jets fly to their real jobs, patrolling the borders or defending values in lands far away from home where the enemy is shooting back.

So, when we talk about a 4th Gen fighter (like the CF-18 that Canada has been flying for 40 years) and a 5th Gen fighter like the F-35, and any of the jets that were built in between these generations, what is the difference?

iPhone vs Flip Phone     

iPhone 12 is a 5G smart phone and will connect with the 5G networks that are being built all over north America and the world.  There are 1 billion iPhone users, and we benefit from the upgrades and enhancements that come with the IOS upgrades every 6 months or so.  We get App upgrades all the time to make the Apps more functional and to fix small bugs in their software.  The iPhone 12 allows us to connect into the 5g networks and gives the user access to the Internet of Things.  We text, use iMessage, FaceTime, WhatsApp chat, read all social media and even make phone calls.

We play games, do all our banking, trade stocks, take amazing photos and videos, and stream them live.  Our lives are interwoven into the capabilities of our iPhones and the future cannot be imagined without them.  And that future remains brighter knowing that there will be enhancements and new Apps and better capability.  Our interoperability with a Billion other users gives us access to networks that will further enhance our lives.

What do we know about Flip phones?  Flip phones were revolutionary in their day and have been upgraded over the years.  You can call and text people and even send emails.  Typing is hard because the keyboard is an older design and you must scroll through each button several times to get to the letter or number you want, but with a lot of practice you can make it work.  A Flip phone has a camera and can store pictures; and even has games and some Apps on it.  It connects with the internet, and you can read the news and surf the internet.

But the future is uncertain with the Flip phone because there are not many users left and no one knows when the parts and pieces will stop being produced or for how much longer we will be able to sustain their capability.  The limited utility of the Flip Phone means that we cannot use them to accomplish the many other tasks of our daily lives, like banking and shopping on Amazon and buying plane tickets.  If we only had a Flip phone, we would be forced to drive to the bank in person to deposit checks into our bank accounts and would need a laptop to transfer funds and complete other banking transactions.  Without an iPhone (or other smart phone) we would then need laptops and other devices to accomplish those daily, mandatory tasks.

The Flip phone cannot connect with 5G networks that are being built across North America which also means that our connectivity in the future will be limited.


  • Does all the tasks plus so much more
  • Growing with iOS upgrades and App improvements frequently
  • Continuing evolution of iPhone design and capability – beginning of its life
  • Franchise fleet – 1 billion users
  • Sustainable for many years to come.
  • 5G compatible – Internet of Things

Flip Phone

  • Can do the minimum tasks required.
  • Best upgrade of an old design
  • No growth over the coming years
  • Orphaned fleet – few users
  • Hard to find repair parts in coming years.
  • Only 3G connectivity – cannot upgrade to 5G.

The Cell Phone Analogy

  • F-35 is a 5th Generation fighter = 5G iPhone 12.
  • F-35 is a 5th Generation fighter = 5G iPhone 12.
  • Super Hornet / Gripen are 4.5 Gen fighters = Flip Phones
  • 4th Gen Fighters – Dial-up Internet

4th Gen and the upgraded 4.5 Gen fighters can do air-to-air patrol missions and can also fly air-to-ground attack missions.  However, to survive in the modern-day war scenarios, the 4.5 Gen fighters need support aircraft with electronic warfare capability to jam the enemy’s defense systems.  The 4.5 Gen fighters also need support aircraft to be able to target, drop bombs or fire missiles at the enemy defenses to permit the 4.5 Gen fighters to slip through the defenses.

Instead of sending just 4 F-35s to attack a target area, the 4.5 Gen fighters require as many as 3 or 4 times their numbers to get safely in and out of enemy territory.  The 4.5 Gen fighters are multi-role, but they require other mission support aircraft to safely conduct their missions.

In contrast, 5th Gen F-35 aircraft can enter and exit enemy territory alone and without the support aircraft.

Connectivity = 3G – open data link to share but very little data passed between fighters and other participants

Growth – limited money to invest in improvements over time.

Orphaned Fleet – few users which will make sparing and finding parts even more difficult as time moves on.  In the case of Super Hornet, Canada would be operating an orphaned fleet dependent on the US Navy for upgrades which will end in the near term as the USN focuses on its own 5th Gen fleet as well as the development its 6th Gen platform.

4.5 Gen fighters have individual avionics ‘boxes’ for each individual sensor and capability.  If you want to improve capability, then you must upgrade each ‘box’ and then improve and upgrade the processor that takes the information from each box.  This means hardware upgrades as well as software upgrades across several systems.  A software-defined fighter like the F-35 gets software upgrade without the laborious hardware changes.  At select times during its lifetime, an F-35 will warrant a big step in processor capability which means both hardware plus software upgrades; however, these occasions are likely to be no more than once a decade vice on-going hardware upgrades for a 4.5 Gen fighter.

Future Costs

As time moves on, with more than a Billion users of iPhones, the Apple community will fund improvements and paying for replacement screen and repairs will always be reasonable.  How will a Flip phone be repaired in 10 years when there are almost no users of the phone?

Replacing a screen may be almost impossible and find the small parts needed to fix the simplest of problems may be hard or impossible to accomplish.  The cost, if there is no replacement for the Flip phone, of paying to manufacture new spare parts will be astronomical, especially since there will be almost no users and at best, you would be robbing from discarded Flip Phone much like rummaging through a junk yard looking for old car parts.  The same logic applies to a fighter in the future.  Finding parts and maintaining the 4th Gen planes will get harder and more expensive as time moves on when parts are scarce and more expensive because there are so few of them available.

Future Fighter – Internet of Things or Dial-up Networking?

iPhone like the 5th Gen F-35 is the Internet of Things and is a system capable of conducting all our business tasks on the phone itself plus link the information to iPads and Macs.  The Flip phone like the 4.5 Gen fighter can only pass information with its non-stealthy limited bandwidth datalink, the equivalent of old dial-up networking vs 5G connectivity.

The Flip phone can call, text, take pictures, send emails, and play some games.  The connectivity is slow and the keyboard difficult to manage.  The iPhone 12 was made for humans of almost all ages, intuitive to use, does everything that the Flip Phone does but better plus the Internet of Things all at the speed of 5G.  There is a revolutionary leap from the Flip Phone to the iPhone 12 just as there is a revolutionary capability leap from the 4.5 Gen fighter to the 5th Gen F-35.

Does a country invest in connectivity and the ability to operate now and in the decades to come?  Or does that nation invest in an orphaned fleet where there will be few users and limited parts and service in the decades of life of that fighter.  Most cell phone users around the world have opted for smart phones like an iPhone over a Flip phone.  It would seem logical that the consideration for a new fighter would follow the same thinking.

This is the second in Billie Flynn’s series on understanding the F-35 and the F-35 global enterprise.

It was first published on August 11, 2021.

If we go back to 2015, a discussion with Lt. Col. Berke underscored the core points being made by Flynn.

2015-04-30 Lt. Col. “Chip” Berke first met John Blackburn as a guest at the Williams Foundation Seminar in March 2014 on airpower.

When Blackburn was putting together a follow-on event with the Centre for Military Studies in Denmark, he requested early on that Berke provide his insights into what the fifth generation experience is really all about.

There is virtually no one better qualified to do so — which the audience attending the Copenhagen airpower symposium soon learned.

His background is unique in that he has moved from more than 2,000 hours in the Hornet to the F-22 and then the F-35. He then became the first F-35 squadron commander in the USMC. He also had time as a ground air controller with both the Marines and the US Army as well.

For Berke, the F-35 represents a rupture in airpower, not a steady state evolution.

It is not a replacement aircraft, and is no more a chronological replacement for the Hornet or the Super Hornet than is the Osprey a replacement for the CH-46.

It is very different type of airplane and rooted in doing things very differently, and that difference is crucial to mission success dealing with 21st century strategic challenges.

Lt. Col. Berke focuses on why fifth generation is not a chronological transition at the Copenhagen Airpower Symposium. Credit Photo: Second Line of Defense
Lt. Col. Berke focuses on why fifth generation is not a chronological transition at the Copenhagen Airpower Symposium. Credit Photo: Second Line of Defense

It is more about rupture than continuity and is a key part of the air combat revolution underway.

Berke described the challenge he faced going from being a very successful pilot in 4th generation aircraft to confronting the disruptive change associated with fifth generation.

He faced a situation where pilots with much, much, much less experience than he had were able to excel against him as he brought fourth generation mindsets to the F-22.

I showed up with guys about half my experience, who were just annihilating me in the airplane.

They just understood things way better than I did.

It was a very difficult transition for me.

So much of what you knew as a pilot didn’t apply.

It was very frustrating to make fourth generation decisions – my Hornet brain – inside an F-22.

A lot of those times, if not most of the times, those decisions proved to be wrong.

One might note, given the high cost of pilot training and the key role of the combat pilots in the air combat force that learning to fly yesterday’s airplanes creates a mind set that actually can undercut the capabilities to use 5th generation aircraft such as the F-35 effectively.

It is not just about wasting time, effort and resources; it is about undercutting the speed with which the F-35 can have an impact upon the combat force.

When he was able to grasp how to think differently as a combat pilot in the F-22, he recovered his ability to perform combat dominance.

You have so much more to offer the three-dimensional world than you did prior to really figuring it out.

When you realize that your contribution to air warfare is about that, and you’re doing it much better than you can in any other platform, you start to recognize your contribution on war fighting as a Fifth Gen aviator.

And what made the F-22 different suggests how the F-35 is different.

The F-22 is a very fast and maneuverable aircraft, but that is not where it excels.

It is an information dominant aircraft, a characteristic that the F-35 takes to another level.

“The F-22 is the fastest, the most powerful fighter ever built.

The least impressive thing about the Raptor is how fast it is, and it is really fast.

The least impressive thing about the Raptor is its speed and maneuverability.

It is its ability to master the battlespace is where it is most impressive.”

Rather than focus on speed is life and more is better, the Raptor has started the rupture in air combat whereby information dominance in the battlespace is the key discriminator.

Berke believes that the replacement mentality really gets in the way of understanding the air combat revolution that fifth generation capabilities have introduced and that will accelerate with the F-35 global fleet.

He argues for the need really to accelerate the leap into fifth generation-enabled combat forces for the US and its allies.

“When you look back a decade from now, what will the F-16 be in 2025? Or the F-18 in 2025?

Lt. Col. Berke responds to a question from the audience at the Copenhagen Airpower Symposium. Berke is flanked by Group Captain Paul, Godfrey, RAF, and John Blackburn, Williams Foundation. Credit Photo: Second Line of Defense
Lt. Col. Berke responds to a question from the audience at the Copenhagen Airpower Symposium. Berke is flanked by Group Captain Paul, Godfrey, RAF, and John Blackburn, Williams Foundation. Credit Photo: Second Line of Defense

The disparity which is already significant now will be even greater a decade out with comparison to the F-35.”

It is about the plane in an important sense.

We don’t want to find ourselves freaking out in 10 years that we wasted the last 10 years wondering, “Should we?” We should have spent all that time asking ourselves, “How do we?”

The “should we” question is yesterday’s news.

If you’re asking if we should fly Fifth Generation airplanes – if you’re asking if a Fifth Gen fleet is necessary, you are old.

You are behind.

You are late.

And you’re going to lose.

In another sense it is really about the synergy between the plane and the emerging fleet and the fifth-generation enabled combat ecosystem.

Berke used the iPhone analogy to describe the dynamics of change.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone he said it was revolutionary for it combined a computer, with a music player with a phone.

And he repeated this several times in the roll out presentation.

I doubt that anyone in the audience today would describe their iPhone that way.

The ecosystem, which grew up around the phone and with which the phone itself has matured, is what is revolutionary, not simply the phone.

The same is true of the F-35; it is revolutionary; but the ecosystem which will change and which will inform the further development of the aircraft is even more so.

When we fast forward to 2025, what will be the threats with which we will be dealing?

Berke underscored that we could debate that point from the perspective of 2015 but it would be a debate.

Come 2025, and the threats will be much clearer and need to be dealt with.

We need a platform which can be responsive to those threats and evolve over time.

That is precisely what the F-35 is all about.

The F-35 is designed to evolve…..

Plasticity is about the idea that is inherent in the design, inherent in the DNA of the equipment you buy, is the ability to substitute for other elements as needed.

I understand that the F-35 is built as a tactical aircraft; I get that. The fact that it’s designed as well to be flexible to other mission sets and live in other regimes that you’d never ask a tactical platform to do is what give is it that inherent flexibility, that inherent plasticity.

Do we have a platform that’s flexible enough to adapt to that changing environment? Fourth generation airplanes simply can’t do that.

And in a theme that he introduced in the Canberra conference last year, Berke underscored that the notion of a tactical fighter was undergoing change as the pilot’s ability to operate in the battlespace with information capabilities, expands as well.

The burden that the F-35 places on a pilot is much greater, and I understand the information processing is better.

I understand that the pilot interface with the aircraft is a lot better, but the skill set is much broader now because that pilot and that aircraft interact on a much broader capability, and it’s much more operational, much more strategic, than any tactical platform that’s ever been built because it’s resident in the design of the airplane because of the things that it can do.

I can provide information to a general officer sitting in a CAOC.

At the exact same time, I can send information to an aircraft flying ten miles away from me.

That information is relevant to both at the same exact time in two totally different ways.

No other airplane has ever been asked to do that before, let alone have it be natural in its DNA or expect to be able to do that by design.

And to highlight the significant difference between the 4th and 5th generation, one simply can compare what was asked of each when they were launched into operation.

What makes a sensor-collaborator-shooter platform relevant?

That is not the question we asked about a fighter 10 years ago, 25 years ago.

That was not the question we asked in 1975 when we wanted to buy the F-16.

That’s not the question that was asked 10 years ago with the Typhoon.

Information development, access sharing, and the ability to integrate security – that’s how you measure the F-35.

That’s how you measure the fifth generation fleet.

How well does it do that?

You can build and design an airplane, and we have a designed and built airplane, to be able to answer those questions, to be relevant as a shooter, to be relevant as a collaborator.

You have this information.

I have this information.

Let’s view that information together, provide each other a much more enhanced picture to make a more intelligent decision while, at the same time, funnel information to other users that can parse out the data that’s valuable and relevant to them.

And it is the ability to operate throughout the combat spectrum that is essential as well, and is a core competence of the F-35.

Air warfare is about spectrum dominance.

It’s not just enough to say, “My radar is better than your radar,” or “My sensor is better than your sensor,” or “My capability in this spectrum is better than yours.”

I have to be able to move back and forth between spectrums.

I need to figure out where within the spectrum the fight’s going to take place, and then layer on top of it as much depth.

That’s what Sensor Fusion is by the way….

It isn’t just enough for that one airplane to get that information, it’s the data link and the multi-functioning capability that all these different airplanes are fusing information together behind the scenes, and handing it to you, so you can now make decisions based on information that another airplane 10 miles or 100 miles away have given you, that you didn’t even realize because you don’t even have to ask him for information because it’s just there.

And then Berke addressed the question of stealth and focused on its important contribution to the plane and its ability to operate and not providing a mystical capability.

Stealth facilitates access.

It doesn’t make you invisible; you don’t fly around with impunity.

It just allows you to operate in an environment that you could be restricted from or excluded from without it.

You take that with all the other capabilities of the platform, aggregate them together, and you now have a survivable platform that can operate in certain environments that no other platform can.

And clearly, the F-35 is designed to work with core assets throughout the battlespace.

With regard to other aircraft, the F-35 makes other aircraft more lethal and more survivable–and legacy airplanes provide ordinance and battlespace presence which complements the F-35 as well.

“Don’t just think that the presence of a fifth gen platform is good to the legacy airplanes.

It’s a two-way street, and it’s very functional for everybody.”

And he warned that if you do not make the jump into the F-35 world, you will have a core challenge of working with everyone else who has.

If you’re on the outside saying, “I have this asset that I’d like to contribute to your fight,” you put the onus on the recipient and go, “Well, we can use that on this side. Maybe it will fit here.

Can we communicate?

Can we make this work?

Can we make this relevant?

Let me see how you fit in.

For the USMC, the F-35 delivers essential capabilities to enhance the survivability and lethality of the MAGTF.

At the same time, it also allows the Marine Corps to link up more effectively with other forces as well.

Be brilliant for the Marines on the ground, keep Marines alive, support Marines in contact, and support Marine Corp objectives. We can operate any time, any place, anywhere, for any reason, with any other user.

Now you have a force that is relevant well beyond what its mission statement looks like on paper.

That’s what the F-35 provides for everybody.

It’s a great question to ask, what is it like to be part of that larger ecosystem?

In the Q and A, one audience member asked about the A-10 discussion in the US and Berke had a straightforward response:

As a JTAC the key requirement is that the airplane show up.

The A-10 pilots are amazing; the plane will not always able to show up in the environment in which we operate; the F-35 will.

That is the difference for a Marine on the ground.

In a meeting September 4, 2013 at Eglin AFB, Lt. Col. Berke—then the F-35B squadron commander at Eglin—and Secretary Wynne discussed fifth generation aircraft.

Wynne saw getting the services to understand the nature of 5th gen as crucial to the effort to change the culture.

He therefore worked with COS Mosley to create a billet in the USAF for a USMC F-22 pilot.

That pilot was Lt. Col. Berke. Berke.

Until this meeting at Eglin AFB on September 4, 2013, they had never met

Creating the 5th Generation Force: Secretary Wynne and Lt. Col. Berke Meet and Discuss from SldInfo.com on Vimeo.