Acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan Should Not Channel Gates: Accelerate Not Reverse Airpower Modernization

By Robbin Laird

It might be of use if the Acting Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) read his own National Security Strategy.  

We are in a period of great power politics and enhanced prospects for force on force conflict.

And that leads OSD to the conclusion that we should build more airpower targets for the bad guys?

At least when Gates decided to destroy the USAF he had the excuse that the land wars were the thing and the Russians were not in play and the Chinese were being integrated in the world order of peace and brotherhood.

Having lived through the Gates cancellation of the “Cold War” airplane and spending $55 billion plus on the rapidly obsolescent MRAP program, I simply cannot believe that the new Trump OSD team wants to foist a sub-optimal capability on the Air Force.

Because that is what the foolish idea of buying “new” old F-15s would be at the expense of the fifth-generation F-35s.

This is not just about a platform; it is about force transformation and accelerating the combat capabilities of the global F-35 force which our allies are investing in and betting their lives on.

This is not about “building up the defense industrial base,” but rather a vivid display of strategic myopia.  

When the news first appeared of this improbable idea, especially for a President who campaigned on making American Great Again, a recently retired and well-respected allied Air Chief commented:

“They are not actually going to buy F-15Xs – surely not—total insanity—no one could justify that purchase at this stage of the F-35’s development.”

When we last heard about “new” old F-15s was when these were offered to the South Koreans and what was there answer—no.

When that decision was being contemplated, we published a piece which looked at the options for South Korea and there are clear lessons there for the “Acting” SECDEF.

This article was published in 2013 and six years later, it is clear what the F-35 can do against Russian systems—as the Israelis have already demonstrated.

But here was what that article highlighted with regard to South Korea and its strategic choice.

MIG Alley is a “street” in the Korean skies up to the Yalu River.  The “owners” of this “air estate” is South Korea.  With such lessons in mind, 15 South Korean Air Chiefs, wrote to South Korean President to not select “Silent Eagle.”

Give the Korean Generals full credit in NOT trying to fight the same type of historically successful MIG Alley fighter sweep engagements. In their letter to the President of South Korea they recognize F-35 technology as moving forward and the “Silent Eagle” vectoring them back to the past.

They know that the F-15 has over a 100+ to 0 kill ratio, yet still make a public request for F-35s.

What makes the fifth gen so formidable is that stealth is a survivability enhancer both offensively and defensively.

The question is simple facing choice between the old and the new:

Is stealth a design factor of adding capability to an existing airframe or multiplying total airframe effectiveness from a new start design?

 Airframes have basic design trade off characteristics of range(R), payload (Pl), speed (S) and maneuverability (M).

For example, say the characteristics combine to give a US 4th Gen aircraft a relative comparative “score” of a 10 against current competitors and previous aircraft of the last generation.

A US 4th gen legacy aircraft has a hypothetical “10.”

Now along comes the concept of stealth designed into the airframe from the start-so range, payload, maneuverability, and speed in a 5th Gen built from a clean white board design are all enhanced both offensively and defensively by total airframe stealth.

The initial 4th Gen formula would be as follows: R+PL+S+M= a hypothetical 10.

Boeing in their own words with the “Silent Eagle” and “Stealth F/A-18” state they are “adding stealth” to F-15s and F/A-18s but the math is against them.

Their design formula: R+Pl+S+M+Stealth= gets an improved number, say doubling improvements adding Stealth is “+10.” Thus,  “+Stealth” creates an airframe performance index that improves from “10” to “20.”

The F-22 and F-35, Russian and PLAAF design teams incorporated “Stealth” from the beginning to enhance the total basic airframe so their 5th Gen formula is (R+Pl+S+M) times “Stealth.”

Doubling improvement in stealth using the same number as mentioned above from initial design is 10 X 10= “100” over legacy additions of “20.”

The “Silent Eagle” and “Stealth F/A-18” are in a design battle they cannot win–and if it were possible to be a fifth Gen fighter by addition, both Lockheed and Boeing would have offered modified F-16 or F-15 or F/A-18 as their prototypes when they competed to build the Joint Strike Fighter.

The decisions of Secretary Gates set the nation back at least two decades in terms of its defense modernization and preparedness and we may not recover in time.  

I cannot believe that the current Acting SECDEF would want to replicate that performance. We are seeking defense modernization; not un-modernization.

I don’t see how that makes America Great Again.

If the concern is about the defense industrial base there clearly are three initiatives which could be taken which do both that and accelerate airpower modernization.

First, ramp up production on the line in Fort Worth.  Because the line lives of production from the supply chain, this means more work throughout the supply chain.

And this is a modern supply chain, one which operates from the standpoint of industry 4.0.  There is no point to continuing a legacy aircraft with an older form of supply chain; it is about accelerating the transition to industry 4.0 on the production line.

Second, the Australians and Boeing Australia have put in motion the opportunity to build out a wingman for the F-35.  The Phantom Works head made it clear that the Aussies were in the lead in building a fifth generation air force, so we can work with them on accelerating manned-unmanned teaming built around a fifth generation airpower approach.

This is what the head of Boeing’s Phantom works had to say about the loyal wingman and the Aussie fifth generation combat force:

“What’s also significant, is this is the first time that Boeing has designed and developed an aircraft, an unmanned aircraft outside the United States in our 100-year history,” Arnott said.

“And we’ve done it here in Australia, so that’s a pretty big deal.

“There has been a really positive change of appetite here, starting at the government level with innovation being part of the agenda for the first time in a long time, and a whole heap of initiatives flowing from that.

“And those initiatives are putting up the flag to companies like Boeing to say that Australia has the intent to move from a buyer to a creator.”

And according to Australian Defence Minster Pyne: “The partnership will produce a concept demonstrator of a low cost unmanned ‘Loyal Wingman’ aircraft, capable of operating in concert with Air Force’s fifth generation air combat capability.”

Third, Secretary Wynne, who was right about airpower modernization, when Gates decided to move backwards, has a very clear approach to how airpower modernization could be accelerated.

What Wynne proposed was moving ahead with an approach which would combine modernization monies for the F-22 with R and D money to deliver in a very short time frame new combat capabilities built around the F-22 airframe and a potentially new propulsion system.

According to Secretary Wynne, “I need to evolve a better airplane than the F-22 to have the same command and control characteristics as the F-35 while retaining the speed advantage that the F-22 was optimized for.

“I need the F-22 flight characteristics to be marginally better, in the speed of flight; range and, and perhaps even stealth capability; emphasizing ‘what have we learned’ during the years of operations.

“But I need it to be massively better in the command and control, communications, and targeting aspects.

“To get there, one could take two aging F-22s, give one to the Phantom Works and give one to the Skunk Works and ask them a simple question: how would you make this airplane better than it is?

“They would be given a budget for a three year effort and an open field in front of them.

“The USAF could send in crew and support teams to the two centers to enable them to determine what the pilots really want. But it is up to the Phantom Works and Skunk Works at the end of three years to deliver their best effort modified F-22.”

At the end of the three year period, the USAF would have two variants of the evolved F-22 to choose from and can compare those two modified aircraft with the extant one to determine if the modifications really make the kind of combat difference the USAF would want.

“It is apparent we have settled on stealth; we have settled on speed under control; we have settled on needs for C2 built into the aircraft. We do not need to go back and redefine those using the requirements process. Rather lets use them as massive beta tests with current and past operators as the critics.

“We know and are learning the parameters for the evolving F-35 and F-22 air combat force, and their impact to combined warfare.

“Now, make this airplane extend the capabilities of the total force.”

“What is a sixth gen aircraft? Right now, it is an evolved gen five airplane, with plenty of feedback—and a forward look at competition for the future.

“And what is that?

“The F-22 was optimally designed for penetration and speed.

“By leveraging as well what we are seeing in the F-35 we can shape its battle manager capabilities and roles as well.

“This allows one to jump the lengthy requirements setting process and gets the development teams focused on the ‘beta’ feedback for how to build out a better aircraft within the parameters of what a fifth-generation evolution is generating for the combat force. This best commercial practice first forces a revolution in thought as to what is ahead for future platforms, then forces a revolution in thought as to how Joint Command and Control adapts to the flow of situation awareness at the edge of the battlespace and beyond, and what to do about that.

“If you don’t like the outcome of this particular three-year study, you can commence a ten-year development program for what you perceive as the next generation air combat asset.”

There are a number of key advantages to such an approach, which draw upon the current and anticipated state of air combat evolution.

First, this builds out the combat capable network enabling combat operations.

The USAF clearly is focused on shaping an advanced C2 network built around B-21, BACN, F22 and F-35 – this would draw upon, evolve and enhance a force insertion C2 combat force able to operate at the cutting edge of the operational space.

Put in other terms, one would get an enhanced capability in the short to mid term and not wait for a futuristic 6th gen aircraft.

The mesh nets of a flexible set of force packages enabled by fifth generation aircraft would be significantly enhanced.

Second, the approach would build on the reality that there is a long cycle airframe development but there is a very short cycle to the evolution of software upgradeable electronics, avionics and C2 systems.

Recognizing that the F-22 is already a superior airframe, the task would be to evolve the guts of the aircraft to work within and push out the “meshnet” and the combat capabilities, which it empowers.

Third, the manufacturing innovation introduced into the F-35 and evident in the open ended digital thread line at Fort Worth can be leveraged as one focuses on manufacturability as a key element of building out the air combat force.

As Donald Kinard, a key Lockheed Martin expert on aircraft manufacturing has put it:

“Because of our digital thread approach we can incorporate innovations from the commercial space, which creates opportunities to improve quality and reduce costs.

“Our digital thread manufacturing process provides us with the opportunity to do so on an open-ended basis.

“This aspect of innovation built into the F-35 program is not widely appreciated.

“We’re able to harness the power of the major digital companies out there developing technologies in the commercial space, and spending enormous amounts of money, and all of a sudden those innovations are flowing our way.”

Fourth, the digital approach encompasses significant change in how maintenance data can flow into the design and manufacturing process, and the innovations with the new F-22 variant clearly need to enhance that capability.

Or put another way, innovations in logistics and sustainment are part of the ability to have enhanced combat impact from software upgradeable combat aircraft.

Again quoting Donald Kinard:

One needs to look at sustainment much like you look at manufacturing learning.

“We’ve done a lot of learning over the past five years.

“We know how to build the aircraft now.

“That mystery is gone.

“Now, we’re learning how to sustain that aircraft, and that data will be captured by systems like ALIS (advanced logistics information system).

“We can then shape a global database as flight data accumulated so that everybody gets better.

“Everybody who has an F-35 gets better.

“With more than 250 planes out in the field, we are getting data from these aircraft and incorporating lessons learned into changes on the FAL itself.

“This is the advantage of having a digital data stream to work with from design to manufacturing to sustainment and back again.

“This allows for a digital learning curve, which enables both quality and performance to be enhanced.

“If customers take full advantage of the process, sustainment will be enhanced and sortie generation rates ramped up for the global F-35 fleet.

This shift in how logistics informs operations and manufacturing is a core cycle, which would need to built into the projected new variant aircraft.

Fourth, by funding at two development teams, Phantom Works and Skunk Works, innovations can be driven into the air combat force by rethinking what the inside of the aircraft and their connectivity can do to drive innovation throughout the overall combat force. Innovations done this way can proliferate into multi-service, multi-domain weapons, remotes and other key elements in the integrated combat space.

It would be recognizing a core reality – in a software upgradable age, combat capabilities are always evolving and cross learning across platforms is a key driver for mission success. There has been much discussion of what some call the Third Offset. But like Moliere’s famous line by the Good Gentleman that I have “been speaking prose all my life, and didn’t even know it!” the Department of Defense is already incorporating digital upgradeability into its software upgradeable platforms.

Fifth, user groups, including inputs from USAF F-22 pilots and all the F-35 combat pilots at Nellis, (USAF), Fallon (USN) and Yuma (USMC) would be integrated into the ongoing research and into the redesign of the F-22.

Participants would sign non-disclosure agreements to provide insights usable to the technological innovations of the two teams and user demand would be recognized as of central importance to driving acquisition development, rather than the older requirements mandated process.

We would see a direct link as well from the work of Skunk Works and Phatnom works with the surface navy and army ADA as the entire “meshnet” is worked and radar innovations and tron warfare innovations are opened up to cross learning, and cross platform adoption as well.

Here the USAF through a new approach to fighter development, one rooted in recognizing that fifth generation fighters are really not at all like legacy fighters can open up the overall innovation set of approaches within the services, but also deliver real combat capability along the way, rather than simply leaving these as future thoughts.

The Air Force under General Goldfein is provoking innovative thought, and the Air Force is responding.

As the ACC Commander, General Holmes has put it the Air Force needs to bring the future forward.

And this reworking by the USAF of its new variant of the F-22 would be informed by user groups involved in multi-domain warfare to broaden the aperture of what is desired and possible on the new variant as a core enabler of the joint combat space.

Clearly, the Wynne approach would do that in very concrete and doable forms.

Building out a significant F-35 fleet, with the services and the allies is a crucial part of the renorming of airpower and the Wynne approach can allow the modernized F-22 to take greater advantage of the impacts of the F-35 global enterprise and its significant effects on renorming.

Shaping a Way Ahead for Rapid Evolution of Air Combat Power and Its Impact On the Joint Command Authority

In short, the current OSD has options to accelerate modernization; rather than going backwards.

It is up to them to meet the challenge and make America Great Again.


Editor’s Note: Ed Timperlake Comments–

When I did all my Net Assessment/CIA analytical studies I felt it important to address the issue of “modernization”

The question of defining “modernization” has historically proven to be surprisingly difficult.

Modernization of a military force can be carried out for any one of three reasons;

  • To gain some new capabilities not previously available;
  • To add new components which provide for enhanced or more reliable operation of existing equipment;
  • Or simply to replace worn-out equipment.

Modernization can also be viewed as capital investment in facilities for production of new or modification of existing equipment.

Continued investment in 4th Gen Defense Industrial lines are NOT long term modernization if the opportunity costs were applied against building surge production of 5th Gen Aircraft.

The industrial base  is also a modernization vector and pluseing up F/A-18 and F-15  at the most basic level is tragically going backward in capability if a we need 5th Gen  and we need it now if war breaks out.

And then there is core consideration of the man-machine system.

While there is significant writing on AI, what gets lost is the significance of the Human/Technology Action/Reaction Cycle.

Prevailing in high-intensity combat is the seen in the differences between combatants.

The quality of uniformed military personnel is critical, and the ability to mobilize rapidly and effectively is crucial.

The tactical skills of combat leaders at all ranks are essential, and the correct focus on constant appropriate training makes it all come together.

U.S. military doctrine must always be dynamic enough to empower all the crucial intangible components when war breaks out.

In some nations, a sophisticated new weapon system can substantially augment the capabilities of its operators.

In other nations, that same weapon system can overwhelm its operators and prove virtually worthless.

Similarly, one country may have the determination to extract the maximum potential from its weapons, while another with similar skills may lack the motivation, leadership and focus on training, training, and training, to exploit those same weapons.

If one was forced to measure either the capabilities of the weapons or the capabilities of their operators, the greater and more useful insight might be derived from the latter.

With the very real computer revolution moving with light speed into the 21st Century there is now a fourth design dynamic at work —the man-machine interface.

Three-dimensional sensing and being able to distribute information to other warfighters, airborne and on the ground or at sea, the relationship of the individual pilot to knowledge of the bigger air battle is truly revolutionary.

Flying F/A-18s and F-15, would  hold  back a core group of aviators that would have been robustly exposed to 21st Century Pilot/Machine integration-so the dynamic of combat innovation  at the Squadron Fighter pilot is also being held back.

Gates on Gates: Can We Overcome His Legacy?

The featured photo shows U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C, March 20, 2019. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)

Even though it was FIVE years ago to the month, an RAAF F-22 exchange pilot explained why fifth generation is a whole other air combat capability and shared some comments from a veteran F-15 USAF pilot on how unfair the F-22 was to fly against.


During the Williams Foundation seminar held in March 11, 2014 in Canberra, the RAAF’s exchange pilot who became a proficient F-22 pilot, RAAF Fighter Pilot Matthew Harper, explained what it was like to become a 5th generation pilot.

Not surprisingly, Harper has an impressive background.

He has over 2000 hours flying fighters (including the F-22, the F-18F and F-18A).

His fifth generation experience is equally impressive.  He has nearly four years flying the F-22A.  He was an F-22 mission commander, an F-22A instructor pilot and an F-22A SEFE.

He became an F-22 pilot because of the decision of the then COS of the USAF (“Buzz” Mosley) and the then Secretary of the USAF (Mike Wynne) to put other service and coalition partners into F-22 squadrons to learn what the leap to 5th generation was all about.

And a leap it is.

The term 4th to 5th generation suggests a gradual step grade function, much like the evolution of airpower over the past 50 years.

Fifth generation is not a step grade; it is a leap into a whole new way of doing air combat and combat operations. 

Harper went out of his way to describe the “unlearning” process that is necessary from operating his Super Hornet to flying the F-22.

Buying fourth generation aircraft is not a holding pattern for the future; it is being left behind in a different historical epoch. 

It is about as dramatic as doing cavalry charges with horses and Blitzkrieg warfare; something that did not work out very well for Poland in 1939.

For Harper, the systems in the fifth generation aircraft, which take a giant leap forward with the F-35, provide the pilot with a decision making role, not an overburdened “look at your screens” and sort out what to do role.

He summarized the impact that he saw with three key examples:

First, within the first 30 minutes of sitting down in the simulator, he grasped that his ability to dominate the air space with the F-22 was clear.

Second, the abilities of the pilots are significantly augmented with fifth generation capabilities.  He cited a recent example where a USAF pilot with only 350 total flight hours flew in Red Flag and dominated his airspace.  For Harper, this would be virtually impossible to imagine in any other plane.

Third, he cited the experience of a USAF F-15C pilot who told him:

“I have more SA with only 20 hours on the F-22A than I ever had with over 1500 hours on the F-15C.”

5th Gen

The overarching point of the presentation was that the fifth generation experience was about disruptive change, not evolution.  You needed to get into the fifth generation platform to experience the change and learn how to shape tactics and concepts of operations relevant to 21st century operations, rather than perfecting your 20th century piloting skills.

He went out of his way to compare the Super Hornet to the F-22A with a core focus on how the former was NO WAY the later.  Whereas the F-22A was an SA and information dominance machine, the Super Hornet was a classic aircraft which had the limitations of any airplane not built from the ground up to be an information dominance aircraft for the 21st century battlespace.

Super Hornet

While the Super Hornet is a significant upgrade from the Hornet, it is not and never will be able to deliver what a fifth generation aircraft can deliver: integrated data fusion and re-shaping the pilot and squadron roles in prosecuting air dominance and support to the joint force in the battlespace.

In short, the leap ahead is crucial; and reworking the culture of the RAAF will be necessary to leverage the disruptive technology built into fifth generation aircraft.