Updated: November 7, 2016 4:12 PM
Pilots Say ‘What’s on the Inside’ of Fifth-Generation Fighters Counts More Than Power, Speed
By OTTO KREISHER, Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON — To a group of fighter pilots who have flown the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II, including a Marine who has flown both, the value of those fifth-generation fighters is not in the power and speed or even the stealth qualities they bring, it is their capability to collect, process and share massive amounts of data that translates into lethal combat power.
Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Gunn said the difference between the current fourth-generation aircraft, such as the F-15 or F/A-18, is like the leap in capabilities from an old flip phone to an iPhone. The F-35A he now flies “is a lot of sensors and computers … a processing machine that has an aircraft wrapped around it.”
Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke, who flew the F-22 as an Air Force exchange pilot and now flies the F-35B, agreed that what is important is “what’s on the inside of the airplane.”
“When I first started flying the F-22, I was enamored by just how powerful the airplane is. … But the least important thing about the F-22 is how powerful it is,” Berke said.
Although old fighter pilots would say that “speed is life,” he said, “now information is life.” In a high-technology war, the fastest airplane could be the first to die. No pilot who flies a fifth-generation fighter “will tell you that what’s impressive is what’s on the outside,” Berke added.
Air Force Maj. David Deptula, who flew the F-22 in combat in Iraq and Syria, said what is “particularly useful” to U.S. and allied air forces is its ability “to detect targets in the air and on the ground and distribute that information in near real time.”
In the F-22 or F-35, “with that information, you’re enabling everybody else,” he said.
Several of the pilots at a Nov. 7 session arranged by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies noted that the F-22 and F-35 not only collect massive amounts of data on the threats and other elements of the combat environment, they process the data and present it as crucial information the pilot can use to make decisions.
“The big thing is not so much the sensors on the airplane, it’s the computers,” Gunn said. Instead of the pilot devoting a lot of the effort operating the sensors, “the airplane is doing that. … I’m the one who gets to make the decisions.”
Although the F-22 currently has problems sharing its sensor information with fourth-generation aircraft, Gunn noted that the F-35 has a Link 16 that allows it to share battlespace information.
The pilots also agreed that the low radar and infrared signatures, or stealth, of the fifth-generation fighters allows them to get into areas other aircraft dare not go and to provide information on the conditions there.
Asked what the F-35Bs will contribute to the Marine Expeditionary Forces, Berke said what the Marine Corps wants “is to be relevant anywhere. The last thing a Marine wants to do is to say, ‘I can’t do that,’” due to the threat.
When deployed with a Marine Expeditionary Unit, “the F-35 relieves that fear that I can’t do my job” because its stealth “allows the airplane to operate anywhere.”
Although the short-takeoff, vertical-landing capabilities of the F-35B will fill the role of the Marines’ current AV-8B Harriers, Berke said, “the best thing we can do is not look like it’s a replacement for any other fighter. … It’s exponentially beyond what any other fighter can do.”