F-35 2.0: The Strategic Significance of Sustained Engagement

By Robbin Laird

When I worked with a team supporting Rear Admiral George Huchting, the head of the Aegis program in the Navy during the mid-1990s, the challenge was to build upon the Japanese-U.S. working relationship with regard to Aegis to break ground for what we termed the Aegis global enterprise.

The Spanish purchased their first Aegis combat system for their F-100 program in 1996, and this was the first time the combat system went onboard a frigate.

And it is the Spanish frigate which became the nucleus of further sales to Norway and Australia, not an American hull form.

This success, which was not foreordained, for it, was a direct sale not a Foreign Military Sales contract, but with that first step, the ability to proliferate Aegis as a combat system for allied navies was launched.

This global enterprise was built nation by nation as the Aegis combat system was evolving significantly, to the open architecture system it is now, and as it evolved from being essentially a fleet support element to the aircraft carrier to becoming a crucial combat asset in its own right, whereby one can clearly think of the aircraft carrier providing support for Aegis ships.

This global enterprise has led to the global deployment of sensors and C2 systems worldwide able to work together to provide for integrated missile defense capabilities, significantly greater than what the U.S. Navy could do on its own, and with the coming of Aegis ashore, land basing is added to sea basing as the Aegis global enterprise evolves.

The F-35 global enterprise is related to this experience but it is significantly different. 

Unlike Aegis, the F-35 program has been designed from the ground up as a global program.

When I had a chance to work with Secretary Wynne in both his acquisition as well USAF positions, he focused directly and significantly on this core strategic goal.

This was human intelligence; not artificial intelligence at work.

And as a global program in which core allies and partners are members of the enterprise even as the U.S. services stand up their F-35 capabilities.

It is not an export program; it is not just about selling airplanes and hope the rest of the force takes care of itself.

It is inherently integratable and drives integration both backwards and forwards, but this will happen as the forces operate the aircraft, and the warfighting centers in the United States and among our allies rethink the capabilities which can be delivered in the near and mid-term and not just navel gazing about the world in 2030.

It is designed from the outset to be a flying combat system, and one which is inherently software upgradeable and as a digital aircraft, can provide the foundation for an integrated global combat force in a way that the Aegis was not originally designed to do.

In an article I wrote in the Fall of 2011 and published in January 2012, I linked the two weapons efforts into what one might characterize as forward leaning integration, that is, the F-35 providing sensors, data, and C2 for the Aegis systems sensors, missiles and C2 as well.

This is clearly a work in progress, but provides a template for what clearly can become a kill web sensor-shooter relationship over the decade ahead.

Interestingly, the draft prepared for publication for the US Naval Institute only focused on the Aegis global enterprise, but when I was given the chance in December 2011 to add additional content, that is when I decided to change the focus to the cross-cutting enterprises.

It was only then that I was able to sneak in the F-35 into the article, for this was supposed to be about the Navy, and the Navy is about the ships they operate and own, right?

I have provided this history only to underscore that the strategic opportunity posed by the F-35 global enterprise is both promising and challenging.

And unlike Aegis it is not an ad hoc post deployment evolution as allied navies bought into the program; the allies and partners consider the F-35 as a key trigger for defense transformation which enhances their national capabilities but builds out a very different approach to global combat innovation and defense industrial working relationships.

It is an air system; not a fighter.

And as such, it is an air system which will receive its full impact only as a multi-domain asset integrated into a nation’s fighting force and one which is inherently integrateable with other F-35 nations, and will be leveraged in terms of what Secretary Wynne refers to as “back integration,” or the ability in the air domain to provide for fifth generation enablement of an air combat fleet and to drive a shift from battle management to mission management.

But these are inherent opportunities; the F-35 as a combat fleet can achieve these outcomes only if the United States and its allies can work through the various challenges of building organizational structures, and operational approaches which enable such a transition to happen.

And to change the business rules which will govern the development of the global enterprise.

A key contributor to Australian fifth generation transformation efforts has been Vice Air Marshal (Retired) Williams Foundation Fellow, John Blackburn.  He has focused clearly in his work on the challenge of reshaping organization structures and capabilities to enable the leveraging of the F-35 global enterprise, which will not lead to the kinds of integrated and innovative changes simply by buying the aircraft.

Blackburn argued that we need to take a broad view of the dynamics of change.

Just buying the platform does not get you where you want to go.  We need to focus on a broader innovation by design approach to really create a fifth-generation combat force and this really is a change in the defense eco system.

“When we buy an innovative system, like the F-35, it will not by itself lead to the kind of change which we need. What we need to do is to take a broader look at force design leveraging the aircraft to reconfigure the force.

“If we do not design an integrated force, we are always going to play catch up and do after market integration.”

Question: But to do this will require a fundamental change in the defense eco system and how defense operates a procurement and support organization.

 How do you view this challenge?

John Blackburn: We are using the business model of the past twenty years when we have acquired standalone platforms and try to figure out how they would work together in the post-acquisition phase.

“But we need to change how the whole organization itself works. The warfighters get what the F-35 drives in terms of change; but this integrative approach is not being replicated on the level of acquisition which is still a stove piped process and world.

“We are preparing to fly fifth generation aircraft in a legacy eco system; this simply does not make sense.

“The design process for the overall force is where significant change needs and can occur.

“What this means is that you look at an effect which you want to create with the overall force and you look at your mix of platforms and determine which can lead the design change to achieve that effect, rather than simply doing additive modernization of every platform.

“You are targeting innovation on a lead platform rather than simply doing innovation by addition.

“The F-35 poses a significant challenge because it delivers weapons, its delivers non-lethal effects, it is an ISR platform, it is a C2 platform, and can itself deliver organic strike or simply delegate to a partner aircraft or system.

“Such a platform simply blows apart the traditional structure and if you pursue integration it is clearly a driver for change; if you don’t you will reduce the aircraft to one of its functions rather than leverage it for multi-domain, cross platform integrated innovation and combat learning.

“We need to take the energy evident at the tactical combat level and inject that into the strategic culture at the top which simply cannot tap into effectively the kind of fifth generation innovation we are seeing from operators.

“This is the first major roadblock, namely, the business model.”

As the Aussies work out their sustainment approach on the various airbases where the F-35s will operate in normal times as well as crisis times, the F-35 partners of Australia have a significant strategic opportunity — namely, to learn how to do sustained engagement operations working with the RAAF in supporting regional deterrence operations.

The Aussies are standing up a significant support structure in Australia for regional support.  As they do so, allies such as the US and Japan can shape an approach to what I would call sustained engagement.

With crises to come in which the F-35s will play a key role, the Australians can provide operating locations for allies, without having to base those allies on a long term basis. This allows Australia its sovereignty but also allows allies like the United States and Japan to gain operational depth, which will be crucial for deterrence in the region.

Because they are flying virtually the same aircraft, stockpiling parts and leveraging an expanded sustainment base with the Australian maintainers leading the way for the USAF to move to a new approach to operations which does not require them to operate like Fed Ex flying in resources to then stand up support in a crisis.

The USAF or the Japanese could fly to Australia and be supported by Australian based supplies and maintainers supplemented by Japanese and US maintainers and could operate rapidly in a crisis, rather than engaging in a significant airlift and tanking support set of missions to stand up aircraft in Australia on a case by case basis.

It is not about just showing up; it is about being able to do sustained engagement with a very light expeditionary support structure to establish and operate from a solid operational footprint.

Lt. Col. David Beaumont, an Australian logistics officer and expert, provided his perspective on how he saw this aspect of the potential for the F-35 program.

“This is the beauty of the program – it supports what we might also call ‘theatre setting’, or creating logistics (sustainment) and other arrangement s we could conceivably operate in.

“In coalition, we’ll effectively be operating a strategic ‘hub and spoke’ support network for the aircraft where a range of coalition bases (countries) offer hubs for operations, with supply chains between them the spokes. The other advantage is considerable redundancy if the supply chains are interdicted in one area.

This inherent capability within the F-35 global enterprise “makes interoperability among allies a fundamental issue for immediate attention.”

One could add that the kind of theater setting, which Beaumont highlighted, would form a key part of deterrence in depth which is critical to shape to our advantage adversary perceptions.

In this article, I am going to focus on the potential advantages, which the F-35 global enterprise COULD deliver, if the business rules are changed, to deliver what I have called sustained engagement.

That is, if one looks at allied operational settings not simply as bases from which a nation might operate its own F-35s, but as places where allied F-35s could fly to the fight as that particular nation might be affected by a particular crisis.

The core requirement here would be to stockpile parts and to ensure that the maintainers of the U.S. services and the allied nations are free to maintain each other’s airplanes.

Antiquated US security rules need to be modified to do so, and the recent USAF flight to Orland is suggestive of what MIGHT happen.

But this needs to not be an occasional pick up sticks exercise, but a key part of our new concepts of operations.

This would mean that the U.S. depot structure needs to be recognized for what it is, a legacy of the past perhaps good for legacy aircraft, but certainly not a building block for global operations and sustainability.

The United States can clearly learn from allies in terms of their non-depot approaches to maintenance and how best to leverage, build and understand what regional support centers can bring to a force which flies to the fight rather than flies to the depot.

A key impact of having a global network of regional support centers with cross-national maintenance would be to reduce the time to get to the fight and to reduce dramatically the need for lift and tanking assets to move to a regional crisis.

Not only is precious time saved, but the U.S. is not operating from allied bases, there are flying to places from which to operate during a crisis management period.

Lt. Col. Beaumont added this comment to the above point. “Such an approach also enables the coalition to operate from one another’s ‘agile bases’ – an emerging Air Force concept.”

Another key impact of robust regional centers is the question of the management of big data, and innovation. 

Because the F-35 is an all-digital aircraft, performance at the point of operation flows as data back into the parts support and manufacturing process.

And allies have a key role in that process, but by unleashing the ability to manage effectively big data from the maintenance side of the equation, the ability to more rapidly improve the production of parts and reworking manufacturing becomes a virtuous circle.

Within this virtuous circle, a number of our allies have very innovative software firms and software solutions. 

Given that this is a software upgradeable aircraft, by unleashing the learning curve from big data obtained through the global support process, the ability to engage allied industry in the ongoing modernization process is not only facilitated but enhanced as well.

Such a regional support approach is congruent with an ongoing trend, which will affect defense industries in the liberal democracies, namely, regionalization.

With the strategic shift, the importance of regional conflict, and of regional allies is enhanced within the overall context of full spectrum crisis management.

And with it, the need for enhanced self-reliance of allies as well.

But enhanced self-reliance in the context of dealing with global authoritarian challenges for the liberal democracies, their partners and allies requires a balancing act.

On the one hand, the regional partner or ally requires access to the force capabilities and the industrial underpinnings of those capabilities evident in a relatively small number of defense industrial powers.

And this entails the capability to plug and play between the larger power and the regional partner or ally.

On the other hand, there is a growing need for indigenous industrial support for sustainment and the development and production of selected national or regional defense capabilities by regional partners or allies.

Lt. Col. Beaumont, who was a significant contributor to the last Williams Foundation seminar where the whole question of rebuilding Australian defense industry to support enhanced sustainability for the Australian Defence Force, underscored the importance of this trend within defense industry:

“We have to be very conscious of the defence industry capacity under this model.

“There is a risk that if aircraft are forward deployed in an allied nation and the supply to that nation is cut-off, the aircraft might be ‘orphaned’ with little support available.

“This is an area for further thinking.”

It is not a zero sum game, but does challenge the dichotomy of exporting and importing nations for more advanced equipment.

It is about how the regional partner or ally can shape enough sustainability and defense capability within the boundaries of its nation or regional setting to be able to work with a larger ally who needs to plug and play with the capabilities of that nation.

By putting the F-35 global support effort in play as an engine for change in terms of regional operational support, the United States can put itself on the right side of history.

And the software upgradeable piece of the integration effort, both backwards and forward, is a key part of the way ahead.

The challenge is to change SIGNIFICANTLY the acquisition approach from yesterday’s requirements dominated by bureaucrats identified the hoops that the development folks are supposed to jump through prior to having a weapon system put into the hands of the operators, or more to the point with the F-35 global enterprise, a modernization process driven by an ability to gain transient software advantage.

For transient software advantage to become the coin of the realm, the operators need to be working directly with the software code writers without the interference from hierarchically distant acquisition officials and “testers.”

Once the platform has been built and software enabled, then the users and the code writers need to be funded to provide capabilities, which the platform as a system can deliver.

Acquisition leadership then becomes strategically sorting through which capability should be enhanced on which platform within the evolving 21st century combat force.

As General Ellen Pawlikowski then head of Air Force Material Command put it in 2017:

“By the way, once you put it in the hands of the operator maybe some of those requirements you had in the beginning, maybe they don’t make any sense anymore because the operator sees how they can actually use this and they change it.”

She then went after the way sustainment is thought about for the software enterprise.

“The other thing that we have is this idea that software is developed and then sustained. What the heck does that mean? Software doesn’t break. You may find something that doesn’t work the way you thought it was, but it doesn’t break.

“You don’t bring it in for corrosion mitigation or overhaul on the engines. When you’re look at what we do in software sustainment a lot of it is continually improving the software.”

And the continually improving software piece is not about development to platform to sustainment – the virtuous circle of F-35 development is about BIG data flowing through the system and continuous innovation unleashed by a truly F-35 global enterprise.

We have a long way to get there; but it will not be the fault of the aircraft if this does not happen.

Rather than having yet another seminar on artificial intelligence let us focus on the core importance of changing the business rules which is supposed to fall in the domain of human intelligence.

The featured photo shows F-35 Lighting II maintainers from both the United States Air Force and Royal Norwegian Air Force working together at Orland Air Base, Norway, to turn two American jets after a sortie June 17, 2019. The visit marked the first time American F-35s have landed in Norway, which operates its own fleet of the fifth-generation fighters, and served as valuable training for the Norwegian maintainers. A fleet of F-35s is currently deployed to Europe as part of the European Deterrence Initiative, as as a way of proving the U.S. Air Force’s ability to rapidly deploy fifth-generation fighters to European bases. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Austin M. May.)

Editor’s Note: In a Mitchell Forum piece published in March 2019, Major Luke J. Harris and Col. Max M. Marosko III, USAF focused on the challenges of building out a fifth generation coalition.

One aspect, which they focused upon, is the significance of working the cross-maintenance capability of a global F-35 fleet.

“With limited U.S. fifth generation air­craft in the Pacific and Europe, and with plans to carry out distributed operations in a major conflict, the U.S. will by necessity have to rely on allies to perform basic maintenance, refueling, and weapons reloading.

“There are not enough U.S. personnel, spare parts, or maintenance equipment to service the expect­ed dispersed flights of F-35s spread out to sever­al bases across either Europe or the Asia-Pacific theaters.

“In order to promote basic integration, Air Force and DOD officials need to remove limitations that would prohibit a non-U.S. F-35 maintainer from performing basic maintenance, refueling, and weapons loading on U.S. F-35s. If this maintenance integration is not practiced in peacetime, wartime implementation will be carried out hastily.

“There is an urgent need for basic integration as the F-35 pro­gram expands, and opportunities should be capitalized on in the con­text of current exercises and deploy­ments.

“Ultimately, the value added through integrated maintenance operations may contribute more to mission success than advanced tech­nical and tactical integration.”

See also the following:


Mitchell Forum Paper

For an initial look at the concept of F-35 2.0, see the following report we released last year: