In addition to the mega-deals announced in the trade press, a highlight of the recent Dubai Airshow — and the Dubai International Air Chiefs Conference that preceded it — was the unmistakable evidence of the extraordinary level of sophistication in not only equipment but, more significantly, in thinking on the part of the Emiratis and other U.S. military partners. These advancements, fostered by U.S. efforts and fueled by the vision of the Emiratis and others truly demonstrate the power of partnership.
At the Dubai International Air Chiefs Conference, or the DIAC, in particular, this advanced thinking was manifested in a striking sea change in the nature of the presentations and substance of the panel discussions. As one who has attended every DIAC since the event began 14 years ago, what I observed at DIAC 2017 was positively dazzling! Whereas in previous conferences various presenters — usually air chiefs of various countries — most often touted rudimentary accomplishments and/or blatantly advocated aircraft and equipment manufactured by local companies, not so much this time. This conference was characterized by knowledgeable discussion of not only net-centric capabilities, but the application and synergization of such capabilities to facilitate greater speed in gathering information and fusing this data to produce vastly increased war-fighting effectiveness — and interoperability!
Interoperability — something I viewed as a key objective of the work we did when I was in my official position — finally seems to have reached a level of acceptance and comprehension. Complementing this was a near-universal understanding at the DIAC of what true fifth-generation air war-fighting capabilities are in terms of net-centricism and sensor fusion, rather than the now seemingly ancient and obsolete perception of the fifth-gen advantages as being stealth coupled with speed and maneuverability.
Of course the big headline emanating from the DIAC was the acknowledgement by U.S. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Gen. Stephen “Seve” Wilson that the United Arab Emirates is being considered as eligible for acquisition of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. While some may have been surprised, this is a logical step in the development of a partner that has been flying the most sophisticated fourth-gen fighter in the world, the Block 60 F-16. More significantly, this announcement is but more evidence of the power of partnership.
Key to this success has been the transformation initiated by the U.S. Secretary of the Air Force International Affairs organization in 2003, whereby the seeming focus on “sales of airplanes” was shifted to building relationships — Air Force-to-Air Force relationships — which eventually grew into building partnerships, including the publication of the Air Force’s first “Global Partnership Strategy,” endorsed by the secretary and the chief of staff of the Air Force. While industry at first appeared concerned that the powerful advocacy of the U.S. Air Force, in the process of convincing foreign countries to buy U.S. equipment, was being diminished, the effectiveness of the emphasis on relationship-building soon became quite clear, as countries realized the benefits of partnering with the U.S. and, specifically, the U.S. Air Force; and the centerpiece of the relationship became the aircraft — and true interoperability would be achieved through training together, sharing concept of operations and operating together so that, when appropriate, we could fly and fight together as one.
Indeed, the U.S. defense industry also quickly adopted a winning strategy of relationship-building and relationship sustainment. Additionally, from the aspect of U.S. national security objectives, as we have witnessed, the strength of the relationship leads not only to greater joint binational/multinational war-fighting effectiveness, but also the will to join in combating common threats.
The enormous breadth of fifth-gen capabilities, in terms of information sharing, data fusion and coordination of assets, facilitates interoperability to an extent not previously realized, while significantly elevating bilateral/multilateral war-fighting effectiveness. The relationships and mutual confidence that have been developed with the UAE and other partners set the stage for the sharing and protection of the advanced data that is at the heart of fifth-gen capabilities.
This power of partnership cannot be confined to the advances of the F-35, however. Both industry and government must not lose focus on the material and operational readiness of legacy platforms and systems. Ensuring that maintenance and sustainment, including availability of spare parts, are supported for fourth-gen and older platforms of U.S. origin is an expectation inherent in the commitment to acquire U.S. systems and an implied precept of the bilateral relationship. Similarly, offering the ability for our partners’ fourth-gen platforms to share data with and benefit from the network of sensors and information enabled by fifth-gen systems will result in unparalleled force-multiplying effects.
As evidenced in Dubai and in every corner of the globe where partner military forces are operating and flying increasingly more capable and sophisticated U.S.-origin equipment, the power of partnership continues to grow and contribute to our collective security through the deterrence of common threats and, when necessary, the defeat of these threats. This is good for U.S. industry, for our partners and for our nation.
Bruce S. Lemkin is a consultant to industry and previously served as deputy undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force for international affairs.