In a meeting in the United Kingdom in November with one of the Royal Air Force officers responsible for introducing the F-35 into the UK forces, Group Capt. Paul Godfrey highlighted the behind-the-scenes work to roll out an F-35 fleet, an effort largely ignored by the analytical press.
"There are 115 F-35s flying now. We are focused on how we are going to use the capability, not whether it will exist. There is a huge gap between the users of the aircraft and the broader puzzlement over the future outside of the warrior community.
"We just need to encourage thinking that isn't tied to whatever we've done in the past. The F-35 fleet is different and can be used for force transformation; unless you don't."
While more direct than most, the group captain's comments reflect the reality seen by those in the US services and allied partners involved in bringing the F-35 fleet to life. It starts with the US Marines' F-35B and will accelerate through the next three years.
While the Chinese and Russians introduce their "fifth generation" aircraft, as only defined by stealth attributes, the US and its allies are preparing to launch a global fleet of flying combat systems with integrated combat systems. The Chinese and Russians have clients for their military weapons, the US has allies.
The initial operating capability (IOC) of the F-35 is not simply about the introduction of a replacement aircraft but the next phase in a revolution of airpower. We had the opportunity to visit key centers for the operational launch for the F-35: Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron-1, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, and VMX-22 for the Marines; Naval Strike Air Warfare Center, NAS Fallon, Nevada, for the Navy; and Nellis' Air Warfare Center, Nevada, for the Air Force.
In each center, F-35 teams are reaching out to work jointly to help integrate the aircraft within airpower legacy technology and operations. The coming sharing of new training, tactics and technological innovations is especially noteworthy because allies will also add their perspectives to the learning cycle.
The Marines are the first user and are on track to declare IOC in 2015. Because the Marines are an integrated air-ground-sea force, their combat force preparation and initial experience with the F-35 is being closely tracked and discussed by a number of F-35 partner nations.
Next up is the Air Force, the service that will be the largest user of the F-35. The service will operate two stealth aircraft — the F-22 and F-35 — and beyond finding synergistic benefits, they can test them against each other to prepare for future adversaries who will deploy their own version of stealth.
According to Maj. Gen. Jay Silveria, the commander of the USAF Warfare Center, "The USAF will be the largest user of F-35s, but we have many partners worldwide who are investing significantly in the aircraft. Our ability to work together is going to be a fundamental aspect of shaping our working relationships, going forward and helping one another to deal with difficult combat situations ahead. The aircraft will demand a culture change, and understanding the adaptability of the aircraft is at the center of the culture change."
The Navy, adopting the F-35 last, will benefit from earlier service investments and experience in the common combat systems.
A visit to Fallon highlighted the Navy's preparations to operate in an expanded battlespace. As the director naval air warfare, Rear Adm. Michael Manazir told us in discussing our trip to Fallon: "We are focused on the ability to connect into the integrated fire control network, pull that fifth generation information into the network. We're learning a lot of lessons from F-22, we're bringing those lessons on as our corporate knowledge starts to gel, so we understand how to do this effectively. We think of integrated capability."
And for the partners, the F-35 is part of an overall defense transformation. For the Royal Australian Air Force, it is a foundational element in what Air Marshal Geoffrey Brown, chief of staff, refers to as Plan Jericho, whereby the F-35 heightens synergy among their new platforms. For the Royal Air Force and Navy, it is about operations between the F-35 and its new carrier and shaping new capabilities for 21st century threats.
It is about partners and allies concurrently rolling out their F-35s and sorting out how their new air systems transform their forces. The F-35 is not an airplane; it is a global air combat system.
Each service and partner will provide ways to think about how the F-35 transforms their approaches; and the sharing of these ways to think will empower the overall joint and coalition combat capabilities for US and allied joint and coalition forces as well.
In other words, rather than thinking of an IOC, it is better to focus on rolling out a global fleet that will help reshape collaboration and innovation in 21st century combat operations.
As Silveria summed up: "the term 'integration' can be confusing because it really is about the evolving capabilities of the combat air force going forward and to shape the combat choreography of many moving parts.... And with the F-22 to date and with the F-35 entering the combat air force, it is about how legacy aircraft can adjust to the new capabilities and the combat team learn how to use both the legacy and the new aircraft more effectively together."
Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake are co-authors along with Richard Weitz of Rebuilding American Military Power in the Pacific: A 21st Century Strategy.