“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” -as Mark Twain never said
Will the F-35 revolutionise warfare, or is there a fundamental flaw in the way this aircraft and its cutting edge technologies will be deployed? Henry Cobb believes that there is something very wrong at the heart of the F-35 concept that will severely limit the world’s biggest weapons programme.
The United States’ military doesn’t want a fair fight. “Rather, we have to maintain a joint
force that has the capability and credibility to assure our allies and partners, deter aggression and overmatch any potential adversary.” Put simply, it wishes to scare its potential enemies and if need be, beat anyone.
Leaving aside the question of whether the US should try to maintain military supremacy, it’s interesting to notice a particular trend that has been going on US military thinking since its birth. During the American Civil War and World War II the United States achieved this ‘overmatch’ (an American word) largely through numerical superiority- but in both conflicts introduced new technologies that provided a temporary military advantage. The USS Monitor rendered all the wooden fleets of her day obsolete in one battle, and while the nuclear bomb has been considered the wonder weapon of the second World War, radar and computing played much bigger roles in the Allied victory.
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The Allied powers’ advantage in radar provided a tactical advantage in air and anti-submarine combat, while their early computers broke Axis powers cryptography for strategic advantage. Still, it was the American head-start in nuclear weapons that provided the ‘First Offset’ to the perceived Soviet battlefield numerical advantage. In this sense, the word ‘offset’ means a counter to diminish the opposing force.
As with iron-hulled warships, radar systems, and computers, potentially hostile powers noted these advantages and copied them. Though technologies are rarely the creation of one nation alone, the US has often been the first to develop technologies to the point of practicality. USS Monitor was not the first Ironclad (a ship using metal armour), the first was French – but it was the first to be used in combat.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work defined the Pentagon’s current ‘Second Offset’ strategy as attack with precision guided weapons that have the same effect on enemy forces as the First Offset’s potential use of nuclear weapons – without crossing the nuclear threshold. He acknowledges that the Second Offset is running out of time because hostile forces have copied and applied these techniques and counters to American advantages, but he hasn’t outlined a comprehensive plan to replace it.
Dan Gouré, Vice President of the Lexington Institute, noted that “second offset strategy relied on several key technologies – stealth, precision guidance for aircraft and weapons and information networks – and a new strategy of deep attack to counter the threat from massed Soviet mechanized forces”, but has called the Third Offset a smokescreen that lacks substance.
We gave a military analyst a trillion pounds and told him to have fun, here are the results
Too much faith in the Lightning
Bob Work has said that the ‘big idea’ for his Third Offset “is human-machine collaboration and combat teaming”, central to this is the F-35. But his faith in the F-35 to be a “war winner … because it is using the machine to help the human make better decisions” is sadly misplaced.
The F-35 Lightning II has “the most powerful and comprehensive integrated sensor package of any fighter aircraft in history“. These sensors gather far more information than the pilot could hope to grasp and therefore the 513th Electronic Warfare Squadron of the USAF hosts the United States Reprogramming Laboratory to update the lookup tables that drive the F-35’s sensor fusion, producing a simplified view of the battlefield
that the pilot can handle.
This automatic sensor fusion is intended to provide the situational awareness that has traditionally been provided by a backseater radar /electronic warfare operator. And so long as the Reprogramming Lab geeks faithfully anticipate and properly program the lookups into the computers this system will never tire or overlook any threat they’ve been programmed to detect. Even better, the F-35 is designed to fight in flights of up to four fighters which not only automatically share information but actually perform distributed sensor fusion to use all the sensors on all of the four aircraft together to detect threats too subtle for the sensors of any one of the aircraft to find on its own.
However this distributed sensor fusion doesn’t work.
The blind men and the elephant
The old Indian story of ‘the blind men and the elephant’ tells of a group of blind men who touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different individual part. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement – the man who has felt its tail believes it to be like a snake, the man who felt the tusk believes it to be a long sharp bony animal and so on.
The flight of F-35s suffers from the ‘blind men and an elephant’ problem. Each fighter forms its own view of the target and they fail to reconcile these distinct views together.
This is assumed to be a minor software glitch that could be rectified if only a little more programming effort is thrown at the problem. The actual error lies in the flawed development model that assumes that the Reprogramming Lab can anticipate all battlefield situations and vacuum up the fog of war with a little more software effort and a block upgrade of the computers in the entire fleet every four years.
ALIS in wonderland
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
-Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass
The science fiction writer Vernor Vinge in his novel ‘Rainbows End‘ used the ‘Red Queen’s Race’ as an analogy for the struggle between encouraging technological development and protecting the world from new weapons technologies. A race where if you run fast enough, you get nowhere.
But surely the United States can at least keep ahead of hostile nations that don’t have the resources to match us in a red queen’s race? Yes, the Russian and Chinese 5th generation fighters will never catch up to the constantly improving F-35, but outside of an ‘Invasion America’ scenario they don’t have to match the Americans plane to plane. The F-35 will more likely to be called to attack an integrated air defense network than act to defend one. When operating over enemy territory American stealth aircraft will be subject to detection by lower frequency radars whose longer wavelengths require radars too large to be carried by tactical aircraft.
Hiding in lightning
But at least the F-35 will alert its pilot when it is being tracked by a lower frequency radar so he can take evasive action? Perhaps not. As an example: consider the radio frequency signature of natural lightning, or sferics. The F-35 sensors surely include a lightning detector function, but the programmers must consider this as a weather, not weapon or hostile sensor, warning. Therefore, to counter the F-35- build a bi-static radar that uses fake sferic radar pulses. (A bistatic radar’s two transmitters are stationary relative to each other, so two radars in different aircraft flying steadily can be used to form a bistatic set).
The F-35 will robotically filter out every pulse and never bother to track down the transmitter. These low-frequency signals deliver target tracks insufficient for weapons targeting (but can put fighters in the right general part of the sky to use more accurate passive sensors using infra-red), but stealth aircraft are much less stealthy against lower frequencies.
These fake sferics will have encrypted codes as frequency and time band gaps in their signals to distinguish them (for the hostile forces at least) from natural events and to act as a data channel to guide silent running defending stealth fighters near enough to track the F-35s by infra-red.
(As as interesting aside, the very first practical application of radar goes back to 1895, when Alexander Popov, a physics instructor from a Imperial Russian Navy school, developed an apparatus using a coherer tube for detecting distant lightning. Britain’s 1920s radar effort also started with lightning detection)
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Once such a system is fielded the Reprogramming Lab geeks will work feverishly to distinguish the artificiality of these signals from the natural phenomena and will eventually produce a working patch that will be ready just as the hostile forces ready their next trick. This innate weakness of the F-35 comes from it being trapped in a Second
Offset development model (a model upgrades happen slowly).
How did the United States go from fielding the only IR air to air missile to merely being about tied with the best? The Europeans, Russians and Chinese have copied from the Sidewinder. This is why the Second Offset is no longer delivering an enduring offsetting advantage. And if the F-35 remains on the existing Second Offset path the United States will actually fall behind hostile forces.
Well, consider the Sidewinder missile. It started with a brilliant idea for how to construct an inexpensive and reliable infra-red seeker and tie this into a basic guidance system. While the initial version had major restrictions on its tactical deployment, the latest AIM-9X is one of the best infra-red air to air missiles in the world. The latest Sidewinder is so good that our top fighters like the F-22 have only just caught up with capabilities such as high off-boresight* shots, a capability long possessed by US Navy Super Hornets, and European fighters with their IRIS-T and ASRAAM.
* (the ability to launch missiles at extreme angles to the side, or in some case even backwards)
The problem is the Second Offset Development model, which is:
* Designers have a concept for the hardware and software for a weapon system.
* Prototype hardware and software is produced and tested in laboratory conditions.
* Equipment is mass produced and fielded.
* Operational real world experience is sent back to the designers to create the next block upgrade.
This is why the Second Offset is no longer delivering an enduring advantage. And if the F-35 remains on the existing Second Offset path the United States will actually fall behind (potentially) hostile forces.
Won’t Work’s “human-machine collaboration and combat teaming” save the
F-35? Not if it continues to be used as a purely tactical collaboration. The labs develop the hardware and software, the sensors on the fighter detect (or not) hostile forces and the pilot responds. What the pilot learns in her sorties is then shared slowly through the unit and service levels before eventually making its way back to the Reprogramming Labs for the next block upgrade years later. This is really no different than the F-22, F-117, F-15, F-4, etc. We haven’t improved our procedures and so the rest of the world has had a chance to catch up.
The US hasn’t improved its model for fielding improvements and so the rest of the world has had a chance to catch up, by copying from our systems and on occasion downloading US specifications.
This one way flow of information in the Second Offset development model is a lot like the waterfall software development model, and is years too slow for this Third Offset world.
The F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) already provides for a back channel to return operational information from the field back to the fleet, but this is currently only used for hardware maintenance.
The F-35 could switch from the last fighter of the Second Offset to the first fighter of the Third Offset by using ALIS to share what human and machine learn on each mission.
Applying this to the problem (mentioned above) of sensor fusion: the F-35 will apply its own best guess at what each sensor blob actually is. The pilot will then look as deeply as she likes into the data, calling for a rescan if she’s still unsure. Her own F-35 will then remember her selection for the remainder of the current flight and then share this update to its data model through ALIS. The sensor fusion puzzle is taken out of the hands of a few Reprogramming Lab geeks and crowd-sourced to every American and allied F-35 pilot. Each pilot then adds both her own contribution to the fight and a small exponential improvement for the entire fleet, which will then get better every day. When hostile forces tap into this network and download the latest data model they will find that it is finely tuned to the latest American sensor hardware and it will take them time to adapt this to their own equipment or use the insights to redesign their own gear to evade detection. And every minute while they are doing this the American network is learning and improving.
Non-democratic adversaries would be loathe to share data model building tasks with their own pilots, much less other countries. This distributed human-machine learning then becomes an enduring Third Offset advantage, because it is constantly adapting. The F-35 Lightning II will strike freely only after it escapes the waterfall.
Henry Cobb is a corporate Director of Special Projects, You can reach him on Twitter
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