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Fighter jets, stealth bombers, attack drones and air-traveling missiles all need to “operate at speed” in a fast-changing great power conflict era. What that means is that “sensor to shooter” time (how fast data can go from a sensor to a war-fighter) needs to be drastically sped up. Without that speed, warfighters won’t be able to react as quickly to threats and it will be harder to win.

When faced with fast, multi-frequency, long-range precision fire from enemy air defenses, air attackers simply must “operate at speed,” according to U.S. Air Forces, Europe Commander General Jeffrey Harrigian, who used the phrase in a discussion with The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. 

Harrigian, who is also now the Commander of U.S. Air Forces Africa, ran much of the air campaign during Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS; he offered a first-hand war perspective in a conversation with retired Lieutenant General David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute.

NEW AIR FORCE STEALTH BOMBER ARRIVES IN JUST ‘2 YEARS’

The opportunity to operate with air supremacy in uncontested environments is, essentially, over, as joint forces prepare for warfare in high-threat areas against advanced enemy forces, sophisticated air defenses and rival fifth-generation stealth fighters. U.S. forces, of course, enjoyed overwhelming air superiority during the years of counterinsurgency in Iran and Afghanistan, a circumstance enabling most key combat decisions to travel all the way up the echelon into an “air operations center.” Now, warfighters and commanders themselves operating at the edge of combat will need to be empowered to make more decisions independently for a simple reason: the speed of attack.

File photo - A pilot looks up from a U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter as it prepares to refuel in mid-air with a KC-135 refuelling plane over European airspace during a flight to Britain from Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania April 25, 2016.

File photo – A pilot looks up from a U.S. F-22 Raptor fighter as it prepares to refuel in mid-air with a KC-135 refuelling plane over European airspace during a flight to Britain from Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania April 25, 2016.
(REUTERS/Toby Melville)

“Years of operating in uncontested environments provided an opportunity to have some time to make decisions and bring them back into a command center. When troops are in contact and you start targeting in a dynamic environment, you don’t want to over centralize. Let your commanders operate, and trust the guys at the tip of the spear,” Harrigian said.

While pilots and Commanders have of course always had the ability to respond as needed under enemy fire or in intense combat situations, newer threats and advanced, long-range sensor technology will require forward-attackers themselves to operate with even more autonomy.

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Advanced command and control technologies, including AI applications and sensor networking are also expected to greatly expedite this kind of tactical approach, as air fighters and commanders on the ground are likely to have a more immediate, informed sense of specific circumstances. Should an enemy fifth-generation fighter or long-range air-attack be incoming, pilots and commanders simply will not have time for a full complement of high-echelon commanders to make a decision regarding counterattack. These combat Tactics, Techniques and Procedures provide key parts of the conceptual inspiration for the Pentagon’s emerging Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) program.

The tactical concept, Harrigian explained, is to “trust the guys at the tip of the spear who understand commanders’ intent.”

“As commanders, we need to do a better job of how we provide intent to support decisions in flight. At the end of the day you need to go from sensor to shooter as quickly as possible,” he added.

During the course of his discussion with Harrigian, Deptula asked about how his experience as an Air Commander fighting against Russian-built air defenses has influenced his tactical thinking. Harrigian specifically cited Russian weapons as an area of particular concern.

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“We don’t want to train every three months. We need muscle memory fighting against air defenses,” he said.

— Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest –

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The much-anticipated, high-tech B-21 bomber will “come on in two years,” bringing new dimensions of stealth, software, attack possibilities and nuclear deterrence to the U.S. Air Force. It would even possibly usher in new tactical approaches to how modern operations may move forward in the years ahead.

In a conversation with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies regarding the importance of modernizing the nuclear triad, Air Force Chief of Staff General Stephen Wilson confirmed that the stealthy new aircraft will “come on in two years.”

There has been discussion about its first test flight being imminent, and service weapons developers consistently express that the program has been progressing very successfully for several years now. Naturally, details regarding its specific developmental nuances are likely not available, as it is a black program. However, prototyping, software development and the overall success of the program has been well-documented. Given all of these factors, it would by no means be surprising if the B-21’s readiness for operations was merely a few years away. Senior weapons developers have long said the aircraft is expected to arrive in the 2020s, so indeed it may very well be on the earlier end of that.

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In recent months, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Air Force Chief Scientist Dr. Richard Joseph and Air Force Acquisition Executive Dr. William Roper, all visited Palmdale, California for an on-site discussion with B-21 scientists and weapons developers with the aircraft’s maker Northrop Grumman.

The B-21 Raider - artist's impression.

The B-21 Raider – artist’s impression.
(U.S. Air Force)

During the visit, Roper commented on the extent to which the B-21 will bring new dimensions to stealth attack, saying it will “push the boundaries in hardware technologies, like stealth,” and “blaze new trails in agile software development,” according to an Air Force report on the visit.

Roper has long-been an advocate for software modernization as a technical foundation for rapid, agile modernization; he recently published some significant comments about the B-21’s progress regarding software and key elements of mission command, saying that developers recently completed an essential software-empowered process intended to bring greater levels of information processing, data management and computerized autonomy.

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While few details are available regarding the B-21s technical composition for obvious reasons, there are some interesting comments made by Air Force developers as well as observations that can be made by simply looking at available images.

Through virtualization and software-hardware synergy, B-21 sensors, computers and electronics can better scale, deploy and streamline procedural functions such as checking avionics specifics, measuring altitude and speed and integrating otherwise disparate pools of sensor information. In effect, it means war-sensitive sensor, targeting and navigational data will be managed and organized through increased computer automation. This will allow pilots to make faster and more informed combat decisions.

In previous statements, Roper has referred to the B-21’s inclusion of “Containerized Software,” which refers to an ability to program computer operating systems to streamline and compartmentalize different functions simultaneously, yet without launching an entire machine for each app, according to the “Kubernetes” website. Roper cited Kubernetes, which is a computer system for “automating application deployment, scaling and management.” Much of this, as cited by Roper, is made possible through what’s called application containerization; it is defined as an operating system-level “virtualization method used to deploy and run distributed applications,” according to Techtarget.com. Containerization enables multiple “isolated applications or services to run on a single host and access the same operating system.”

By drawing upon software-enabled virtualization, systems can upgrade faster, reduce their hardware footprint and better employ automation, AI and machine-learning applications. In all-out warfare terms, this means B-21 pilots can share information and find and destroy targets such as enemy air defenses much faster than ever before. This is something that can expedite precision weapons attack and identify approaching air and ground threats and, perhaps of greatest importance, keep pilot crews alive.

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While many of the details regarding the B-21’s stealth technologies remain mysterious, a quick look at its configuration seems to indicate a few interesting new developments. The engine “inlets” are more curved and embedded in the fuselage, compared to its predecessor the B-2. The body surrounding the inlet appears more rounded and slightly less angular as well, suggesting newer methods of implementing “low radar signature” stealth engineering. Naturally, fewer edges, angular shapes or protruding structures are likely to generate much less of a return signal to enemy radar. Also, the back of the aircraft seems to show little or no heat dispensing, as if to suggest that an internally-buried engine is emitting an even smaller heat signature than the current state-of-the-art stealth engines. Or, there simply could be new ways of managing how heat is dissipated or released from the aircraft to lessen or remove any detectable heat signature. In addition, to be less “findable” by enemy sensors, a stealth fuselage is built to effectively mirror the surrounding atmosphere in order to eliminate any detectable temperature difference. Finally, the structural shape of the crew’s command center cockpit on the B-21 seems to have a slightly lower incline than the B-2, making the shape slightly more rounded or “blended” into a seamless, less detectable configuration.

Kris Osborn is the managing editor of Warrior Maven and the defense editor of The National Interest.

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Senior Air Force commanders are employing new tactics, technologies and protocols to better safeguard drones from being shot down by enemy fire during missions.

Air Force Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of U.S. Forces Europe, recently told reporters that senior U.S. military leaders are now in an effort to increase mission survivability for combat drones operating in high-risk areas. Responding to a question about an MQ-9 Reaper being shot down over Yemen last year, Harrigian emphasized that drone operations need to become less predictable to enemies.

“There is something to be said for operating in a manner that offers us an opportunity to not be as predictable as we have been. We’ve been too predictable, so we are working to facilitate tactics that allow us to be less predictable, which includes having an idea where the threat is and how to avoid it,” Harrigian said during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies interview forum.

Describing it in terms of a continuous learning curve, Harrigian explained that advanced communications with air assets and command centers can vastly improve prospects for drone mission success.

“We continue to learn an awful lot about how to optimize our use of Reapers in theaters where they can quickly become tested. It starts with our coms and the environment we are in,” Harrigian said.

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Being less predictable may involve a number of interesting tactics, such as varying routes or surveillance locations to confuse potential adversaries about which areas are of greatest interest. It could also mean changing altitude, dwell-time or mission frequency. In addition, there are a host of possible methods through which drones might become more survivable, to include stealth configurations, longer-range, higher fidelity sensors and weapons and, perhaps of greatest significance, network “hardening” against hacking attempts or various intrusions.

The increased information processing and network proficiency now possible with advanced systems means vulnerability may also be increased as adversaries attempt to jam, intercept or destroy drone signals and targeting technologies.

Adversaries have also studied how drones target and destroy areas of interest, and adjusted to new tactics such as obscuring high-value assets such as vehicles and forces beneath various coverings or in rugged terrain. In more advanced cases, adversaries may have learned which shapes and signals are targeted successfully and made adjustments to change heat signatures, external configurations or locations to complicate or confuse drone sensor systems.

In this undated handout file photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, an MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, is piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.

In this undated handout file photo provided by the U.S. Air Force, an MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, is piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan.
(AP/US Air Force)

Yet another way to increase drone survivability would be to simply quicken the pace of information and video-feed data processing. The faster gathered ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) data can be received, organized and transmitted to identify the points of greatest relevance, the less time a drone may need to fly to accomplish its objective.

As Harrigian explained, much if not all of these methods hinge upon fast-improving methods of command and control now being refined through the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control program.

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“We want warfighters to have the awareness to make decisions faster by understanding what the warfighter at the tip of the spear needs. The goal would be to refine the timelines to take the data from different sensors and provide those to shooters,” Harrigian explained.

— Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest –

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It’s called “Direct Attack”, or the ability of a stealth bomber to penetrate heavily defended enemy territory and drop bunker-busting weapons, hit moving targets, pinpoint small targets for close-in destruction and carry larger amounts of smaller-bombs for what’s called “Stand-in” attack.

Interestingly, despite the necessary and much-discussed technical emphasis now placed upon developing long-range, precision-guided “Stand-off” weapons, “Stand-in” operations for “Direct Attack” are still very much in need, given the set of specific advantages they provide, according to a recent study released by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

The report, called “Long-Range Strike: Resetting the Balance of Stand-in and Stand-off Forces,” makes a specific and decided point of stating that a carefully calibrated mix of both approaches is what a fast-evolving modern Air Force needs. The study points to a series of significant variables with which to make this point, such as size, shape, scope and timing of attacks.

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Long-range attacks, such as cruise missiles launched from more than 500 miles, can at times take up to one hour to arrive, making it more difficult to destroy moving or relocating targets; direct attacks focused on penetrating operations can often use “on-board sensors and other capabilities to complete the entire kill chain against time-sensitive targets,” the study states.

The B-21 Raider - artist's impression.

The B-21 Raider – artist’s impression.
(U.S. Air Force)

Also, closer-in penetrating aircraft can carry larger numbers of smaller bombs, something which enables longer-dwell time and an ability to track and hit newly emerging targets. More bombs would likely be needed in a heavily defended area to overcome the many countermeasures expected to thwart, disable or intercept attacking weapons. Hitting penetrating targets, also, can be a tactical advantage somewhat specific to Stand-in weapons attacks conducted by stealthy, penetrating aircraft, the study explains.

“B-2s can deliver 5,000-pound direct attack ‘bunker buster’ weapons and even the 30,000-pound GBU-57A/B Massive Ordnance Penetrator on hardened targets,” the study states.

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Within this same logical framework, the study goes on to say that longer-flying Stand-off weapons might be more vulnerable to being detected and intercepted, simply because they are likely to be larger and spend more time traveling through the air. Citing the extent to which Russian, China, Iran and others have been developing more and more advanced countermeasures, the study explains that U.S. precision strikes will continue to face a growing number of serious challenges when it comes to pinpointing targets:

“[C]ountermeasures include developing layered air defenses that can intercept incoming weapons; fielding increasingly mobile ground-based weapon systems to make it harder for U.S. ISR systems to locate and track; and hardening/deeply burying important installations to make them more difficult for weapons to destroy. Weapons destroyed or otherwise defeated by enemy air and missile defenses can increase the total number of weapons needed to kill a set of targets,” the study says. 

Despite all these factors, there of course remains a pressing and immediate need for “Stand-off” attacks as well, given fast-emerging technical progress with enemy air defenses. The study makes the point that Stand-off weapons are particularly useful at the beginning of a campaign because, naturally, they involve less risk to humans and can target key fixed infrastructure such as heavily defended command and control centers.

Also, the advent of stealthier, more precise weapons, such as the Air Force’s Long-Range Stand-off weapon cruise missile, promise to bring highly sought after tactical advantages to warfare. Advanced in-flight sensors and guidance systems are increasingly enabling long-range weapons to elude enemy air defenses. In addition, long-range weapons of this kind can both conduct ISR (Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance) in some instances and also “test” enemy air defenses for soon to arrive closer-in attackers.

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For example, newer maritime variants of the Tomahawk missile are now better able to reconfigure trajectory in-flight to destroy moving targets. Also, it goes without saying that air defenses over territory controlled by an advanced adversary are likely to pose a very significant risk to human pilots working to penetrate the vicinity. Nonetheless, the need for effective “Stand-in” attacks are expected to justify the added risk, while of course considering that maximum risk-reduction measures would be put into effect.

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What much of this clearly points to is that, while of course, a mix of both Stand-off and Stand-in attacks are necessary, stealth is not going anywhere. Essentially, there will remain a clear and pressing need for attacking forces to retain an ability to penetrate heavily fortified and defended areas to successfully optimize offensive operations.

fundamental concept is why attack plans often follow a certain logical sequence, beginning with Stand-off weapons to soften air defenses, to be followed by stealth bombers intended to achieve air supremacy to open a crucial “air corridor” through which less stealthy, fast-maneuvering fighters can attack. Finally, on this point, the Air Force is not only engineering a new generation of stealth with its B-21 but also making progress adding advanced, air-defense detecting sensors to its B-2.

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It’s called “weapons forward,” the idea that an airborne fighter jet could control an advancing armed drone traveling into high-threat enemy territory. Many refer to it as the “loyal wingman” phenomenon wherein a fighter pilot operates nearby drones from the cockpit, increasing the pilot’s range, reducing latency and optimizing the entire sphere of attack possibilities.

While drones have carried weapons for many years, they are operated often at great distances from ground control centers and have their mission specifics determined from through a high-echelon command network. Drawing upon airborne manned-unmanned teaming, however, changes this equation by enabling vastly enhanced tactical proficiency out at the edge of warfare, Air Force General James Holmes, Commander, Air Combat Command, told Lieutenant General Dave Deptula (retired), Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace studies in a recent interview.

Holmes flatly explained the clear advantage in terms of having an ability to attack with an F-35 or F/A-18 Super Hornet becomes exponentially improved by virtue of airborne manned-unmanned teaming. Forward drones can conduct ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) missions, carry supplies into heavy counterfire, function as a refueler or even fire weapons themselves when commanded by a human.

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“With the situation we are in with Russia and China, if they know they only have to target 10s of airfields, or even 100 ports and airfields where we have to get resources to get close enough to operate, we simplify their problem. What can we do to move away from our dependence upon those ports and airfields?” Holmes said.

A U.S. Airforce F-22 Raptor with the 154th Wing, Hawaii Air National Guard, conducts an aerial demonstration during the Singapore Airshow 2020 near Changi Exhibition Center, Republic of Singapore, Feb. 15, 2020 - file photo.

A U.S. Airforce F-22 Raptor with the 154th Wing, Hawaii Air National Guard, conducts an aerial demonstration during the Singapore Airshow 2020 near Changi Exhibition Center, Republic of Singapore, Feb. 15, 2020 – file photo.
(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Vitaliy Rusavskiy)

In effect, having a single pilot operate multiple drones offers a massively expanded sphere of attack angles and possibilities, greatly complicating an enemy’s ability to respond. The intent is to sustain a varied, high tempo of combat power with lower risk to pilots and at greater ranges than manned aircraft can operate. More dispersed areas of attack, including different kinds of air vehicles, altitudes, sensors and weapons, present substantial challenges for enemies hoping to defend against them.

“Instead of operating out of five airfields, we operate out of 100 airfields to complicate an enemies’ targeting problem,” Holmes added.

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Bringing all of this to fruition relies upon effective, secure command and control networking, something which is a fast-increasing emphasis for air combat commanders and Air Force weapons developers. The concept to both leverage advanced networking while also empowering attackers at the edge of combat to make time-sensitive decisions.

“The idea is to have a system that will let us communicate commanders’ intent and push the data to the people who need it to win the battle of long-range fires, to out target, out think, out tempo and out range the enemy,” Holmes described.

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Should every combat decision, emerging throughout fast-changing war circumstances need to reach all the way up to a single, high-echelon, multi-domain command and control center, mission efficacy might be decreased. Therefore, Holmes described the intended combat strategy as almost a sort of paradox, meaning it is extremely important to maximize the improved sensor-to-shooter times enabled by advanced networking while also tailoring distribution in the most efficient way to empower decision-makers under fire in heavy combat.

In essence, advanced networking can both be leveraged and properly managed by capable human decision-makers. Training advanced algorithms, increasingly able to improve autonomy and use AI, will be necessary to bring this kind of application to the next level, Holmes explained.

— Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest –

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The U.S. Air Force is arming its cargo planes with bombs for attack missions in a clear move to expand the offensive warfare envelope for its fleet of tactical supply and transport aircraft, bringing a significant ability to drop weapons from austere, low-altitude, hard-to-reach areas.

An Air Force C-130J released palletized weapons in three separate airdrops as part of an Air Force Special Operations Command simulation to expand the mission scope for the cargo-tanker aircraft.

The Special Operations plane released three Combat Expendable Platforms carrying munitions stacked up on wooden pallets. The CEPs, according to an Air Force report, were configured with six simulated munitions, the same mass as the actual weapons across a “spectrum of high and low altitude airdrops.”

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The weapons not only separated properly from the aircraft but also separated from the CEPs to travel along a desired trajectory. The Air Force report described it as “innovative weapons concepts” to bring new attack dimensions to the “high-end” fight.

A Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicle with Extended Range, or CLEAVER, 2-pack pallet deploys from an MC-130J Commando II aircraft.

A Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicle with Extended Range, or CLEAVER, 2-pack pallet deploys from an MC-130J Commando II aircraft.
(Air Force photo)

Arming cargo planes in this way does introduce several new interesting tactical dynamics. Propeller-driven airplanes such as the C-130 have a much-increased ability to operate, take off and land in rugged, uneven or even rocky terrain. Should a piece of dust, debris or small rock hit the airplane, its engines are not in jeopardy of being totally disabled. Therefore, such an attack scenario could, in particular, benefit forward-operating small Special Operations teams detached from larger mechanized support. An armed C-130 could help fortify an AC-130 gunship by bringing air-dropped bombs to the fight.

This would open up a new range of attack options such as penetrating, bunker-buster attacks for enemies buried in caves, bunkers or buildings; it could help drop “area” bombs with proximity fuses to disperse fragmentation throughout groups of concentrated personnel; it could even allow for some kinds of higher altitude attacks on certain kinds of moving enemy vehicles in areas harder to reach by aircraft in need of a runway strip. This kind of offensive capability could lend additional airpower support to other air assets performing Close Air Support for forces caught in a ground firefight, enabling troops to maneuver safely in combat. Finally, air-dropped bombs are not only able to draw upon an ever-increasing measure of variable-yield, tailorable explosive effects, but they can also be used with increased accuracy for more precise, pinpointed attacks in areas where a smaller explosion is needed, such as urban or more populated target areas.

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Higher altitude attack planes such as fixed-wing fighters or bombers, of course, operate with unprecedented levels of precision, yet there may be certain hidden or concave areas less visible to long-range sensors, underscoring the need for a closer-in air drop attack. Also, an ability to drop bombs from cargo planes would undoubtedly expand “dwell time” over target areas for attack, especially if airstrip runways are very far away, limiting the time fighters could spend searching for targets over key areas.

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This kind of warfare adaptation for cargo planes is also consistent with the Air Force’s longer-term strategy for advanced weapons. Laser weapons now-in-development in particular, fit within this kind of tactical scenario. The Air Force Research Laboratory has for quite some time been working on aircraft fired laser weapons. One of the challenges with this is of course the need to condense and transport effective amounts of mobile electrical power. Much progress is being made, and the ultimate plan is to arm fighter jets with air-to-air and air-to-ground lasers. In the meantime, as a step toward this eventual goal, the Air Force plans to first arm cargo planes with laser weapons because they are better able to accommodate transportable power. The form factors have not miniaturized enough to the point where strong enough lasers can fire from fighter jets, as the power systems need to be mobile and lightweight yet very strong. Therefore, cargo planes offer an excellent intermediate step with which to fire lasers from the air, a tactical scenario greatly enhanced by an ability to launch air-dropped bombs.

Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest.

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The Air Force is sending F-35s to the Middle East to escort ships, deter potential enemies, conduct reconnaissance and, of course, support ongoing combat operations in the U.S. military’s Central Command region.

Describing the deployment as the latest squadron to join the fight, Air Force officials said the operation marked the third time in approximately 12 months that F-35A Lightning IIs have been sent into combat.

“The 421st Fighter Squadron departed Hill AFB recently for Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, to support the United States Air Force Central Command mission in the region,” Air Force officials said.

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As combat operations against the Islamic State and the Taliban have been decreasing or, in the case of the Islamic State, basically ended … the F-35s seem likely intended for training exercises, deterrence, force protection and ship escort. The Air Force report specifies the F-35s’ mission scope to include “defensive counter-air, maritime escort, deterrence and participation in multi-national exercises.”

F-35A Lightning II aircraft receive fuel from a KC-10 Extender from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., July 13, 2015, during a flight from England to the U.S.

F-35A Lightning II aircraft receive fuel from a KC-10 Extender from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., July 13, 2015, during a flight from England to the U.S.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Madelyn Brown)

That being said, the F-35 fighter jet has previously attacked the Taliban during its combat debut and is, according to its proponents, well suited for close air support (CAS). The Air Force has long intended to use the F-35 for CAS missions and, in a special Pentagon evaluation, assessed the F-35s in relation to the revered and combat-tested A-10 Warthog.

Some may think of the F-35 as perhaps overkill when it comes to CAS, or potentially more vulnerable than an A-10 if it, in fact, is hit by ground fire. The A-10 is a tried and tested combat platform considered extremely valuable to the military services. However, many senior Air Force developers also value F-35 superiority when it comes to CAS missions, pointing to its sensors, targeting systems, 25-millimeter cannon and speed as attributes contributing to the F-35’s combat performance.

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Long-range, computer-enabled F-35 sensors could help the aircraft to see and destroy enemy ground targets with precision from much higher altitudes and much farther ranges than an A-10 could; the speed of an F-35, when compared to an A-10, would potentially make it better able to maneuver, elude enemy fire and get into position for attack. Like the A-10’s 30-millimeter gun, the F-35 has its own 25-millimeter cannon mounted on its left-wing which could attack ground forces. Given its sensor configuration, with things like a 360-degree Distributed Aperture System with cameras, the F-35 brings a drone-like intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance component to air-ground war. This could help targeting, terrain analysis, and much-needed precision attacks as U.S. soldiers fight up close with maneuvering enemy ground forces.

An F-35 might be better positioned to respond quickly to enemy force movement; in the event that enemy air threats emerge in a firefight, an F-35 could address them in a way an A-10 could not, obviously. An F-35 would be much better positioned to locate enemy long-range fires points of combat significance and destroy hostile artillery, mortar or long-range-fires launching points. Finally, while the A-10 has a surprisingly wide envelope of weapons, an F-35 could travel with a wider range of air-ground attack weapons—armed with advanced targeting technology. However, despite the potential efficacy of the F-35 for CAS, many believe it makes more sense to use less-expensive, non-fifth generation aircraft for missions where there is U.S. air supremacy and no ground threat.

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All this being said, the deterrence posture for the F-35 is likely now geared for combat prospects well beyond CAS, as counterinsurgency efforts diminish and, in some areas, disappear. Also, the current environments in which the United States has been engaged in combat have been in areas without any kind of credible air defense threat. So, the F-35 fighter jets can function as a deterrent against Iran and, if needed, destroy Iranian ballistic-missile launch sites, establish air supremacy and even take out nuclear weapons development facilities if necessary.

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The Air Force is now flying B-1B bombers and Global Hawk spy drones over the South China Sea and other areas within the Pacific theater as part of a broader strategy to sustain surveillance and deterrence missions in the region, following the increased U.S.-Chinese tensions.

The B-1Bs are flying out of Guam in support of Indo-Pacific Command and, according to an Air Force report, they are specifically conducting missions over the South China Sea. At the same time, the Air Force is rotating its Global Hawk drones to an Air Base in Japan called Yokota, a move which further bolsters a U.S. operational presence in the region. Such missions are likely taking on a new urgency in light of reports that China has been conducting two-carrier exercises in the South China Sea, something making Taiwan increasingly nervous about a potential Chinese invasion.

The Global Hawk surveillance drones, in tandem with their Guam-based Navy Triton maritime partners, are increasingly engineered with advanced algorithms bringing new levels of autonomy. Pre-programming mission objectives wherein an aircraft can autonomously make adjustments to emerging circumstances and quickly process large volumes of information at one time, allows U.S. Commanders to improve and extend mission scope in the region and possibly overcome the much-discussed “tyranny of distance” characterizing the vast, geographically expansive Pacific theater.

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One such technical program, engineered for greater airborne autonomy, is called Distributed Autonomy Responsive Control (DARC), and enables unmanned systems to better form “mesh” networks through air and ground nodes to perform a greater range of functions without needing to have each small move coordinated by a ground-based human decision-maker. The Northrop-made now-in-development DARC system seeks to distribute greater measures of autonomy into the aircraft itself. “Instead of flying it, you tell it what effect you want in an area,” Scott Winship, vice president, Northrop, told Warrior in an interview.

An RQ-4 Global Hawk - file photo.

An RQ-4 Global Hawk – file photo.
(Air Force courtesy photo)

For example, a Global Hawk could draw upon on-board processing speed to gather, organize and analyze large volumes of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) data such as video feeds, determine the relevance of specific information and transmit streamlined data to human decision-makers. Better networked aerial surveillance assets can offer another way to address the geographical challenges presented by the Pacific, by enabling drones to exchange data of great relevance across otherwise disparate areas of operation.

“Now our processing capability is so fast and we have so much storage that we are meeting that mission. Algorithms run fast enough so that if we watch our track, it will dump that data if nothing is happening. We only concentrate on the things we want to concentrate on,” Winship explained.

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If one drone in a family of interconnected airborne surveillance assets encounters weather obscurants or veers off course, other air “nodes” can offer direction and enable aircraft to autonomously make the proper adjustments. This not only decreases a “cognitive burden” or human workload but massively improves latency or combat-critical sensor-to-shooter time.

An RQ-4 Global Hawk takes off Oct. 7, 2010 from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam - file photo. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nichelle Anderson)

An RQ-4 Global Hawk takes off Oct. 7, 2010 from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam – file photo. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Nichelle Anderson)

Much of this is made possible by real-time analytics; for instance, on board computers can in some instances utilize machine learning programs to bounce new mission data off of existing information to make rapid determinations of consequence to a mission, before sending organized data to commanders. A previous report in The National Interest says the Air Force 2021 budget proposal suggested plans to cut the number of planned Global Hawk systems, however, they seem to be very much in demand — and technical improvements such as DARC may ultimately impact this equation and extend the Global Hawk’s service life.

In tactical terms, this amounts to having a Global Hawk stare at a strategically relevant portion of the South China Sea and instantly identify moments of importance such as a Chinese surface ship passing through.

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“We have finally broken through the barrier of the amount of processing power you can have and get information processing aboard the airplane. We can hit thousands of targets in one pass,” Winship added.

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