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By Russ Read
The F-35 isn’t just better than its predecessors; it’s revolutionizing the way the military thinks about fighter aircraft.
To understand just how groundbreaking the F-35 is, you need to think of the aircraft the way you do about the iPhone, Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke, the first operational F-35B (the Marine Corps variant) pilot, told Aviation Week’s Check 6 podcast Saturday.
Berke compared the introduction of the F-35 to the introduction of the first iPhone by Steve Jobs. The iPhone single-handedly redefined what we expect our cell phones to do. In turn, the F-35’s capabilities are redefining what a fighter aircraft is expected to do. Like the iPhone, the F-35’s introduction is disruptive, and Berke claims we are only on the cusp of discovering what it might be able to do in the future.
Berke outlined three major differences that put the F-35, and other fifth-generation aircraft (like the F-22), in a league of their own.
“I think the three things that stand out that I would say are the biggest differentiators is, obviously, fifth-gen platforms are low-observable,” said Berke. “That’s a unique quality, it’s important.”
“Low-observable” is the military term for stealth technology, which uses special designs, materials and countermeasures to make an aircraft effectively invisible to radar. The F-35 and the F-22, the U.S. military’s other fifth-gen fighter, were both designed to be low-observable from the start.
“It’s a characteristic that’s absolutely a requirement,” said Berke.
That’s because the modern battlefield requires more than ever from fighter aircraft, while also presenting an increased threat.
The second major advantage of the F-35 is what is known as the sensor-fusion engine. This revolutionary system creates a single integrated picture from all the aircraft’s sensors for the pilot, fills in missing data with various sensors and has the ability to share the information with other fighter aircraft and anyone else tapped into the F-35’s network.
F-35 manufacturer Lockheed-Martin offered the following example as to why to the sensor-fusion engine is a crucial addition in a white paper:
An enemy pilot effectively neutralizes sensor A from one F-35 in a formation of several. The likelihood that enemy will be able to do the same to another F-35 in the same formation is slim to none.
It is extremely difficult for the enemy to defeat multiple sensors on multiple F-35s simultaneously.
Because the sensors between the F-35s are fused, the pilot in aircraft #1 can simply tap in to aircraft #2’s sensor suite.
The ability to share information to other military platforms is the third major advantage, Berke said. Not only can an F-35 share with other aircraft, it can also disseminate to anyone integrated into its network, such as Navy ships. He explained that the F-35’s pilot display is almost like watching a baseball game, with multiple players all engaged in the game. The F-35 improves the experience by allowing a pilot to zoom in to what’s happening at second base, for example.
“Those three qualities don’t exist in a fourth-gen platform,” said Berke.
Berke would know, as he has also flown some of the most famous fourth-generation fighter aircraft, including the F-18 and F-16.
The F-35’s capabilities are forcing pilots to completely redefine their thinking. Whereas other fighters were standalone platforms, the F-35’s integrated network forces a pilot to think about where he or she can operate most efficiently in the battle space for both themselves and those to whom they are disseminating information. This means the F-35 can also perform multiple mission functions in real-time, engaging in a bombing run at one point and then transitioning to an information gathering role shortly thereafter.
The fighter’s remarkable capabilities have already made it a favorite among pilots. In a survey of 31 fighter pilots, the Heritage Foundation’s J.V. Venable found that 100 percent said they would prefer it in “beyond-visual-range situations,” while 80 percent said they would prefer in a dogfight.
The survey results should come as no surprise, as the F-35 made an impressive debut at a recent Air Force Red Flag training scenario, where it put up a 20-to-1 kill ratio, according to Air Force Gen. Jerry Harris.
“The kill ratio will grow even higher once the tactics for the new jet are refined, and F-35 pilots get more time in the air to master those tactics,” Venable, himself a former Air Force fighter pilot, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
What makes the F-35 most like the iPhone is its user potential. Berke explained that the original iPhone was branded as an Mp3 player, cell phone and internet device, but developers have now made it so much more. Similarly, now that F-35 operators have their hands on the aircraft, they are likely to continue to develop its capabilities, according to Berke.
“The F-35, it’s light years beyond anything we already have,” said Berke. “The only way I know that is I flew F-18s, F-16s, F-22s and F-35s operationally for 23 years, that’s how I know that.”