The F-35 Lightning II, a Strategic Asset

In The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World, author Walter Kiechel III traces the evolution of corporate strategy from its beginnings to the global financial collapse of 2008. That so many financially minded strategy “experts” seem to have gotten everything so very wrong in the lead up to the collapse motivated Kiechel to investigate.

Philip Evans came to Kiechel’s attention via Evans’ 1992 book, Blown to Bits: How the New Economics of Information Transforms Strategy. Underscoring much of Kiechel’s analysis is the developing theme of information and the advent of the computer and internet, which understandably connects to the contributions of Philip Evans. It is toward Evans’ ideas we lean, in this look at the F-35. Understanding the transformation of strategy is key to acknowledging that the F-35 is much more than it seems. For the same reasons the digital era transformed the business arena’s application of strategy, the role of intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) assets has transformed the legacy fighter aircraft. So far removed is the 5th generation F-35, that anyone opposed to implementing capabilities like those in the F-35 in their future air force risks a great deal.

The F-35 Lightning II is the latest in a long string of military aircraft innovations. Peter Drucker, management’s guru, once said “Innovation is the… act that endows resources with a new capacity to create wealth.”  Wealth is synonymous with value, and value in a military context encompasses what Evans describes as “rich” information – something every commander needs.

Successive innovations, some incremental and others radical, proved necessary throughout the Cold War to help us remain apace or ahead of antagonists. Reductionists only see the F-35 as an incremental innovation along a long stream of increasingly effective fighter aircraft. But the F-35 is more akin to a radical innovation along an even longer stream of ISR information-gathering assets – the most effective of which leverage Evans’ information ideas. The F-35 is not strictly a fighter, as reductionists see it. It is because of what it can do that the F-35 more readily merits consideration as a platform, a node, or a conduit that, when joined with other similarly capable “nodes” serves as a key component in a tremendously powerful, informative and lethal network.

The F-35A flies its aerial demonstration debut at the 2017 Paris Air Show. Lockheed Martin photo by Angel DelCueto.

The F-35 is an airborne asset that helps to eliminate duplication in the intelligence cycle, because it functions as an information-fusion component for the benefit of the commander and everyone implicated in the intelligence cycle. Perhaps most importantly, it does all this at what antagonists most assuredly believe to be a very uncomfortably short distance, owing to advanced stealth technology.

Some have reported, “the Lightning II’s biggest selling point is its ability to evade enemy radar…(along with) a sensor system designed to vacuum up information about the airspace around the F-35 without giving up its position.” It is important to acknowledge how the first capability (stealth) enables the second (information collection). Information is key to what the aircraft and its pilot can do; gathering information is ipso facto a manifest function, and sensors make that possible. Stealth puts the F-35 a lot closer to information sources, exposing to those sensors more critical information for collection than would otherwise be the case. Consequently, any requirement to act decisively on the information collected will take less time because the F-35 and, possibly, other connected collaborating assets (other F-35s and such) are, again, a lot closer to the point-of-delivery. It is difficult to imagine any ally choosing not to be a part of such a powerful collaborative capability.

There is a common thread between Kiechel’s focus on a “fiercening capitalism” and Lockheed Martin’s characterization of the future battlefield, to which their F-35 is designed to respond. That thread is strategy, and core to strategy – whether corporate or military – is a grasp of the environment, near and far. Information is key to survival, in the marketplace and on the battlefield. To understand the optimization of information-gathering inherent in the F-35, we consider Evans’ conceptualization of information in terms of its richness and reach. “Reach,” according to Evans, means “the number of [nodes] people exchanging information.” Richness, on the other hand, concerns: bandwidth, interactivity, reliability, security, currency, and “customisability.”

“Bandwidth” is well-understood. “Interactivity” concerns the degree to which participants sharing the information are afforded an ability to deliberate and discuss it. It is the nature of the F-35 network that the number of participants who require the information, or who may be considered stakeholders to the particular mission being prosecuted, can be set, selected and modified quite easily to suit the commander’s needs.

Again, the F-35 is a fusion asset; “fusion is critical…to provide a single coherent picture to facilitate understanding and decision making.” This fusion function also enables and highlights the importance of “reliability” of information. In terms of “security,” the F-35’s technology removes barriers, while providing dedicated communication channels by which information is gathered, analysed and shared. Since the F-35 delivers a fusion capability, there could be enormous and positive implications for the Commander’s efforts to build and share a common operating picture. But, you have to be “in the game” to benefit from these aspects of “security.” If one opts out of the F-35 program, one could indeed be left behind. “Currency” speaks to how old the information might be. We have come a long way from the time constraints that afflicted First World War artillery spotting pilots and wet-film reconnaissance pilots of the Cold War.

More importantly, what makes the F-35s information-capture so very “current” is the collection, depiction, fusion and sharing of real-time dynamic information. The “processing” step in the generic intelligence cycle of activities is where customising can take shape. Human cognitive assets are essential, but much of the work can also be performed by dedicated information technology (IT) capabilities, of which the F-35 and its fusion capabilities is a powerful example. Having this IT element integrated into a stealth-capable fast-moving air asset with defensive and offensive kinetic delivery capabilities provides the commander with options with no comparable antecedents; such is the extent to which the aircraft deserves the label of a radical innovation.

There is a growing tension 21st century commanders are facing, on the modern battlefield, between “the use of armed force within a military domain seeking to establish military conditions for a political solution – something we routinely refer to as ‘war,’ – and, the use of armed force that directly seeks political outcomes – something that is clearly beyond the scope of war in its traditional paradigm.” Modern conflict is dynamic, alternating between these two forms, presenting the commander with a continually changing operating picture, complicated by different actors able to change their roles with ease. It is to these situations we must apply ever more capable, flexible assets precisely like the F-35, so as to provide commanders with the very best means of gathering accurate, timely, relevant, reliable and customisable information, in keeping with the tenets of RCAF “shape,” “sense” and aerospace power doctrine.

Our closing message deservedly belongs to the late Colonel (USAF) John Boyd, today remembered as a leading strategist in the 20th century. To understand his “Observe-Orient-Decide-Act” OODA loop and his conceptualization of strategy is, again, to dismiss reductionism in favour of acknowledging how important it is to provide the commander with all relevant information in a timely, accurate way. It is not enough to provide “an” option for strategy; strategy calls for revealing all or as many options as possible, providing a menu of choices which permit the commander not just to pick one but to consider more, and thereby wreak havoc and deceive the antagonist about what the commander is really thinking.

The F-35 platform adjoins a network of similarly capable assets whose collective purpose is to detect, shape and “exploit many vulnerabilities and weaknesses; cause confusion and uncertainty, disorder, panic and chaos; destroy the bonds that hold the adversary together;” and, create or sustain the bonds that unify our forces. In this way, our focus stays where it should, while never losing sight of the whole picture. Such vigilance provides us with a continuing stream of options, enables rapid switching between options and harmonizes our efforts to achieve what we set out to achieve.”

Reductionists might be trapped in their romanticizing models of aircraft capability, most certainly applying John Boyd’s E-M theories to good use. We can forgive them because we likely fell into this trap as a consequence of marveling at the evolving flight envelopes on display at annual airshows. As the F-35 demo pilot said on arrival in Ottawa, in September 2019, “what the F-35 can really do is not actually on display to the general public.” What reductionist’s fail to realize is that Boyd’s E-M theory was but a steppingstone to his much more important work on the OODA loop.

The F-35 is a strategic asset, the capabilities of which provide solutions that keep the user far ahead of the antagonist. There is a great deal at stake. A decision to opt out of the F-35 program based on a reductionist viewpoint risks relegating one’s air force to a third-world capability for decades to come. Western air forces have long recognized the decisive nature of these assets. In this century, decisiveness will have just as much to do with the information gathering and fusion capabilities required today, as speed, manoeuvrability and the delivery of kinetic effects were the elements of decisiveness yesterday.

Dean is a retired Lieutenant-Colonel with 30 years’ service flying tactical helicopters. He continues to serve as Executive Director of the RCAF Association, and Publishing Editor/Designer of the association’s magazine, Airforce, something he has been doing since 2006. Dean earned a B.Sc. (Applied Science) from the Royal Military College in 1981, an M.A. (War Studies) from RMC in 2001, and an M.A. (Leading Innovation & Change) from York St. John University in 2016. He is currently completing an M.Sc. (Strategic Planning) with the Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh Business School. Dean is CAE-certified with the Canadian Society of Association Executives, and is certified as a Strategic Management Professional (SMP) with the Association for Strategic Planning.

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