It’s probably hard to imagine Maverick and Iceman, the characters played by Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer in Top Gun, preparing for a mission with a game of chess. But that might be the mindset of tomorrow’s fighter pilot as the next generation of fast jets places greater emphasis on the fusion of information and the tactical decision-making it now permits, and less on flying the actual aircraft.
Billie Flynn is the prototypical fighter jock, a lean bundle of energy eager to talk about the technical aspects of his profession. But he readily admits that tomorrow’s pilot may be more tactician then technician.
Flynn is a former Royal Canadian Air Force CF-18 pilot and now a senior F-35 test pilot for Lockheed Martin, so part of his job these days is to sell countries, especially Canada, on the virtues of the Joint Strike Fighter.
In legacy aircraft like the CF-188 Hornet, there are limits on how much information a pilot can absorb effectively before he becomes overwhelmed, largely because of the way information has traditionally been presented in the cockpit, Flynn recently said during a briefing at Lockheed Martin’s production facilities in Forth Worth.
Thanks to advances in sensor fusion now present on the F-35 – and this holds partially true for so-called 4.5 generation jets like the Super Hornet, Typhoon and Rafale – information is delivered in a way that enhances tactical decision-making. With its almost nine million lines of code and hundreds of sensors, the F-35, though, excels at this.
“The processor – the fusion engine – decides what’s important and it builds the targets, it’s not me,” Flynn explains. “It’s not me moving a cursor over a radar target and clicking on it and hoping that it takes, and then I have to figure out what it is and talk on my radio to my formation buddies. The fusion engine sees all that [and] decides what’s important.”
Not only do the various sensors distinguish and verify one target from another, they also assemble that information in a way that can be easily and rapidly shared via a multifunction advanced data link with all other F-35 pilots on an operation – sometimes across vast distances – “so that everybody has the same situational awareness.”
That fused data should mean more time to make tactical decisions about the battlespace.
“You’re not going to see Tom Cruise and dogfights – that’s done,” Flynn admits reluctantly of an activity every fighter pilot enjoys. Rather, experience with the F-22 Raptor and simulations with the F-35 point to a method of engagement in which “you will see the adversaries and kill them beyond visual range. And even if they saw you, you have so much advantage against them that the kills will happen quickly. [There’s only a] tiny percentage of seeing the enemy one on one. It’s not a tactic you are going to work. You’re going to work tactics we’ve learned from the F-22, which says, ‘see them with your sensors, be in a position where they don’t see you, attack them as you need … and then go home.’ That will be the case for air-to-air and air-to-ground.”
Recent experience, most notably in Libya, might suggest that that tactical shift has already begun as Canadian and allied nations fought enemies with limited air-to-air and ground-to-air capabilities. But Flynn points to the profusion of weapons being developed and deployed that will test current tactics. He recalls that Canada initially operated its new CF-188 Hornets much as it had its predecessors, the 101 Voodoo, 116 Freedom Fighter and 104 Starfighter. “We didn’t know any better than to take the tactics [from] those older airplanes. We had to evolve our tactics quickly.”
F-22 pilots went through a similar experience when that stealth aircraft was first introduced. “The F-22 guys [had a] really amazing, powerful jet and fought it like F-15s and what they knew before. It took them a while to get past the gee whiz stuff and evolve their stealth tactics. Once the light bulb went on, they changed dramatically how they used the airplane.”
For Canada, Flynn thinks the biggest tactical change could be in the way it patrols the Arctic. Canada has invested significantly in upgraded Auroras and is analyzing options for a medium to high altitude long endurance unmanned system, all to deliver greater ISR capability. But Flynn believes the F-35, with its DAS (distributed aperture system) and ASEA (active electronically steered array) radars could deliver a significant stealthy tactical advantage.
“When I look at Canada and the Arctic and what DAS can bring with the other suites, I think you are talking about dramatically different surveillance capability.”