Since its origin, military aviation has been faced with two challenges: how to counter the adversary’s air capabilities, and how to generate and integrate effects in the surface battlefield. While the first challenge is shared by the other services, it’s undeniable that only the Air Force serves a purpose other than for itself: enabling other components to maneuver and operate.
These two challenges still exist today, and although not altered in their essence, they are exacerbated by the steep rate of technological innovation.
With regard to the ability to counter potential adversaries, we must consider that the new frontiers of hypersonic flight and suborbital operations will be tomorrow’s potential battlefield. Ill-intentioned actors are already employing swarms of drones to attack critical infrastructure, and we have to focus our resources on staying ahead of any possible threats posed by the new technologies. In our effort to innovate and adopt new systems, we must constantly aim at the integration of old weapon systems with those of the next generation.
Our legacy fleet, mostly fourth-generation aircraft, is being pushed well-beyond what was thought possible just a couple of years ago, and simultaneously we embraced with the F-35 the evolution to the fifth generation, a technological and cultural revolution with many implications.
More specifically, data-fusion technology offers the opportunity, more than ever before, to receive and merge real-time information from various sensors, generating clear situational awareness and information superiority. And that is not all. Alongside data fusion, we have an incredible capacity to distribute information, which enhances the operational envelope of legacy weapon systems. The Italian Air Force is pioneering this integration of legacy systems in a fifth-generation warfare scenario; and as we progress, we are finding out that we can have the whole spectrum of fifth-generation actions and effects delivered by a balanced mix of legacy and fifth-generation systems. We call this “fifth-generation transformation.”
However, the ability to be effective in the scenarios that lie ahead of us requires a lot more than just technology, and that leads us to the second challenge: creating, delivering and integrating effects not only in the land and sea battle, but in (and through) the cyber, electronic warfare, suborbital and space domains. It demands a whole new mindset: a fifth-generation transformation of the whole Air Force. The ability to gain and maintain information superiority will be necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure that we always stay one or more steps ahead of potential adversaries. The quality, timeliness and reactiveness of our decision cycles must also improve — from information superiority to decision superiority.
Being able to sift through huge amounts of readily available information and orient the application of air power with speed and precision will be our “next level” challenge.
Even today, while our fifth-generation systems are progressing along their own path of excellency, integrated with legacy systems, it is time to start thinking about the replacement of the Eurofighter, whose operational life will end around 2040.
We have to act promptly in order to keep a cutting-edge national defense and industrial capability. Our peer nations are already making their moves, and we cannot afford to lag behind. At the moment, two international projects are on the table: the Future Combat Air System program and the Tempest.
I’m personally very satisfied by Italy’s choice to embrace the British Tempest project and to start working together on the development of a sixth-generation aircraft. The institutional, industrial and technological cooperation between Italy and the U.K. dates back to the Tornado program, which gave life to a relationship that built up into the Eurofighter program and got even tighter with the experience within the F-35 program.
The sixth generation has not been clearly defined yet, but we must think now about what we will need in 20 years. It could be artificial intelligence, direct-energy armament, or the possibility to integrate and direct swarms of drones from an asset acting as a sensor itself through its capability to adapt its own “skin.”
The biggest challenge will be for industry. The program will be a pulling factor for national industry for the development of future technologies that do not exist yet.
The long-standing cooperation between Italy and the U.K., since the third generation of aircraft, produced a fundamental expertise that we trust, and it will allow us to obtain the best asset for tomorrow’s scenarios.
As the F-35 integrates with the Eurofighter today, it will integrate tomorrow with the Tempest in a multidomain operations environment.
Lt. Gen. Alberto Rosso is the chief of staff of the Italian Air Force.