F35B Lightning II

All photos courtesy U.S. Navy/
Department of Defense

The F35 Lightning:

High Tech Bridge to Cyborg War?

| published August 6, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

In a statement largely ignored by the media, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter early in August issued a press release congratulating the U.S. Air Force and its weapons system developers and test pilots for reaching an important milestone: the operational readiness, or IOC (Initial Operational Capability), of the F-35A and F-35B, an airplane considered one of the biggest leaps in the technology of war since the invention of war.

“I know that even after being declared combat ready,” Carter writes, choosing his words carefully, “there is more work to be done with this critical program, but the Air Force, the Combat Command, and the men and women of Hill Air Force Base [one of the locations where the plane is being tested] should be proud of this major step forward.”

Not counting the USS Zumwalt, a space-age-looking destroyer which cost roughly $3.5 billion to construct and recently set off into the Atlantic Ocean for the start of sea trials, the new Pentagon plane—the F-35A and F35-B Lightning II—is the most expensive weapons system ever built, by any country, in any era, and since the beginning of warfare.

Hyperbole? Consider this: even adjusted for inflation, the F-35 Lightning, developed for use by all branches of the American military and already on order by dozens of U.S. allies, tops the most expensive weapons developed or deployed by any of the combatants of World Wars I or II, Korea, Vietnam, Operation Desert Storm, or the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At well over half a billion dollars per plane, the F-35 beats them all. Granted, the Department of Defense and the various contractors involved say the cost of the plane will soon come down as the final bugs and annoying glitches are worked out and the development process moves from the prototype phase, testing, and into routine assembly. But that assumes that there is anything routine about the F-35.

For all practical purposes describing the F-35 as an “airplane” is misleading, like calling Amazon.com a “book store.” Indeed, by almost any reasonable description, the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning is a massive set of computers, hard drives, processors and servers, an array of cameras and scanners and powerful sensors, a dazzling, complex multi-use military technology and weapons platform, and—some would argue—a $550,000 million dollar cyborg battle suit, sort of Iron Man meets Transformers. It also happens to have wings, which makes it an airplane.

In theory—and as the F-35’s promoters and advocates stress—the F-35 will be the most sophisticated and formidable weapons platform ever deployed, and arguably the biggest game-changer since the invention of the catapult and the machine gun.

The plane is also routinely described by the Pentagon and the marketers at Lockheed Martin as being part of the “next generation” of weapons platforms and defense systems—next generation being the breezy way to characterize the underlying advantages of such a sophisticated plane: so long to the antiquated technologies and analog design elements, welcome to world in which the sci-fi concepts of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams are now reality.

The Pentagon says that the pricey plane is needed—in fact, inevitable—in a world where the technology battles could very well determine the outcome of the shooting wars of the future. And the F-35’s many advocates say that the new plane, once properly deployed, will give the U.S. and its allies superiority in the skies in those future battles. In addition, the mere presence of the exotic plane could serve as a formidable deterrent to rogue nations and major powers. F35 Lightning Vertical Landing

As such, the F-35 Lightning is already being deployed across all branches of the U.S. military—Navy, Army, Air Force, Marine Corps—and there are near-future plans to deploy it into the militaries of two dozen U.S. allies, including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Denmark, Canada, a dozen NATO partners, and U.S. partners in the Middle East and Asia. The F-35 comes in a variety of configurations, including versions for the Marines and the Navy with extreme short-runway take-off and landing capabilities—as in aircraft carriers, Pacific islands, and the sort of short or improvised runways found in distant, remote places—and at least one variation with the ability to land vertically, a requirement of the Marine Corps. All these variations have added greatly to the initial complexity and cost of the overall project.

The plane’s enormous development price tag and per unit cost has been the subject of a lot of debate and political contentiousness, as well as several pieces of investigative journalism and at least two probes by the Inspector General. Those controversies have forced the Pentagon to retool and greatly re-evaluate the project on at least two occasions in the last three years, and have forced the major contractors and designers t acknowledge what almost everyone knows—that project has swollen far beyond what the White House and Congress approved. The F-35’s cost overruns—now famously into the billions (exact figures of the costs are not available, for now)—have spurred comparing the plane to a variety of previous military boondoggles and white elephants.

Example: a battery of tests conducted aboard amphibious ships by the Marine Corps last spring spurred the top brass to declare the plane ready for immediate combat deployment. But government inspectors and weapons assessment experts—along with several military analysts—say that those tests were clumsily executed and fatally flawed, and called that the Marine Corps’ own evaluations unfit as an “operational test, either in the formal or informal sense of the term.” In other words, the tests were rigged.

Indeed, some press reports say that dubious experts in and around the Pentagon worry, now openly, that those tests were little more than marketing demonstrations between executives at Lockheed Martin and the like-minded generals who have become seduced by the high-value project. This sharp difference of opinion has spawned a nasty internal and bureaucratic war over the future of the multi-billion dollar program, and sparked a vigorous debate over how to truly test the effectiveness of the weapons of the 21st century. A similar divide has formed around the massively expensive USS Zumwalt, which—its critics have pointed out—revisits a hull design largely dismissed by the world’s major navies as prone to instability and even capsizing, a design not seen in production since Teddy Roosevelt was President.

But the Zumwalt is but one ship. Congress already chopped the Zumwalt-class ship-building project from its intended fleet of 30-to-32 ships to just two, possibly three, depending on what source you believe. The F-35 will be many—hundreds at first, then thousands, with dozens of operational variations—as the United States and a dozen other air powers replace older fighter jets with the new design. Those tests last spring by the Marine Corps and others were merely the opening salvo in what may be a complicated debate about the F-35’s readiness and reliability.

J. Michael Gilmore, chief of the Defense Department’s Operational Test & Evaluation Office, wrote in a memo that tests conducted aboard the USS Wasp in May 2015 fell far short of being bona fide tests and did not represent testing in real world conditions or under the genuinely stressful stage typically found in combat. Gilmore concluded that the spring testing was too highly structured and tightly controlled, and proved little about the plane’s effectiveness—save that it has some truly dazzling high tech attributes. In short, skeptics fear that the F-35 has fallen victim to highly inflated analyses in their assessments of the fighter’s combat readiness.

But what the plane can accomplish is no small feat, and its capabilities—even in the most choreographed and controlled of testing venues—still dazzle the eye and boggle the mind. Even amidst the controversies and the certainty that Congress will scrutinize all those cost overruns, the airplane’s existing technological skill set is so dazzling as to numb the senses and provoke comparisons to science fiction.

Among its remarkable gifts: a half-million dollar helmet which, when properly linked to the plane’s computers and data center, enables the pilot to see, literally, in all directions. Indeed, that top secret $511,000 helmet is at the center of the plane’s full combat effectiveness: a pilot, fixed in his seat with the helmet in place, will be able to have a virtually unlimited spherical view of his surroundings; he can look beneath the plane, over his shoulders, even behind, at what’s coming—and his peripheral vision will be greatly enhanced…all without having to crane his neck or twist awkwardly in his cockpit. How? The plane’s outer skin is festooned with scores of tiny but state-of-the-art sensors and cameras, all of which feed into the plane’s immensely complex computer server, which in turn provides the data and visuals directly to the pilot in a de facto reality display right before his eyes. The helmet also adjusts automatically for every possible condition—daylight, total darkness, clouds, rain, dusk, dawn, fog, everything in between—adjusting to infra-red or night-vision within seconds and without having to swap helmets or don clunky, awkward goggles.

The helmet is also considered the first substantive step toward a human-robotic hybrid tool, basically turning pilots into cyborgs, as Wired magazine has aptly described the development. Pilots will have the ability—and it’s hard to avoid the constant comparisons to science fiction—to target objects, arm and aim missiles and rockets, fire those lethal projectiles, and make other high speed operational decisions using only their eyes and their finely trained concentration. Aviators can easily locate critical data by simply looking at the “virtual glass” display within the helmet, and this information includes altitude, speed, orientation, incoming projectiles, terrain, critical warnings, fuel levels, you name it, right before his or her eyes at all times.

Think of the film Firefox, starring Clint Eastwood, in which a high-tech plane is able to work almost instantly off the thoughts, facial tics, and simply voice commands of the pilot, reacting within nano-seconds to the pilot’s intentions—except that in that action adventure movie Eastwood plays a Russian-speaking American who must steal the Soviet-era plane. The Pentagon hopes that the F35 will be the international game-changer which just might keep the aggressive tendencies of folks like Vladimir Putin in check. Like in Eastwood’s thought-controlled plane, the F-35 will give the pilot total access to all data and all weaponry at the blink of an eye, almost literally.

A few pilots—those who have broken the protocol of secrecy to describe the experience—have said that the virtual reality experience is not merely disorienting at first, but even nauseating. The brain is not wired for being able to see in all directions, nor is it immediately comfortable with so much information and multi-tasking. The F-35 requires much training and testing, a process of desensitizing the human brain to the immensity and totality of the data it is receiving, and those with any form of vertigo—even seasoned pilots with years of experience—find that acclimation is a challenge.

Still, the challenge and expense of training the people who will take the F-35 into combat may be well worth the headaches and the vomit.
F35C Lightning II on the USS Eisenhower

Another of the F-35’s attributes is its comfort at extreme high speeds. With the capability to travel at Mach 1.62 or better (the actual top speed is classified), the F-35 is intended to be the master of chase and evasion in the skies. Pentagon planners suggest that in the wars of the near future, where the U.S. and allied adversaries are China or Russia, such speeds may be necessary to achieve air superiority. China has made little secret of its intention to bring its substantial technological prowess to bear in its naval and air capabilities, and the F-35, in all its variants, is also seen as a powerful tool in the growing air arsenal being thrown at the Islamic State—an air campaign now in excess of two years in the making, with only modest measurable success on the ground. ISIS is now believed by the CIA and the Pentagon to have spread its geographic tentacles into some 20 nations, with ISIS-inspired or ISIS-leaning groups now taking root in at least six other countries. The F-35 might, its promoters stress, be a useful surgical tool for eradicating those Islamic State cells before they metastasize into major regional problems.

One of the parameters limiting the U.S., Britain, France, and other allies in the crowded skies over northern Syria, northern Iraq, and now parts of Libya: reducing risk to coalition pilots and planes. This has meant shifting the air campaign to higher altitudes and using more bombers, more drones, and more extreme high altitude activities. ISIS has the ability, using captured anti-aircraft weapons (some once belonging to Syria’s Assad, some to the U.S. and the Iraqi army) to shoot down much of what flies above parts of the territory it controls. In the spring of 2015, ISIS militants shot down a Jordanian plane over Syria, and later paraded the captured pilot before the cameras before sentencing him to death by setting him on fire with gasoline and flares. Just this fall, Turkish planes shot down a Russian high speed bomber after it crossed into Turkish airspace along the border with Syria, where the Russian pilots were targeting anti-Assad rebels. Both shoot-downs (the downing of the Russian bomber was a mix-up and unintended; Turkey says it warned the pilots to move out of Turkish airspace) came as wake-up calls about the limitations of the air campaign—an operation fraught with risks for hardware and irreplaceable pilots.

The F-35, its advocates say, could be a game-changer, in part because of its advanced toolbox of skills and attributes—speed, visual and sensory capacity, agility—even in regions where the skies could be crowded with air power from multiple militaries.

But in addition to its speed and its unique and radically-advanced visual tools, the F-35 Lighting is a stealth fighter. Though “stealth,” as it turns out, is a fairly loose term. Like the USS Zumwalt, in which the limits of stealth mean that the massive 600-foot long ship might easily be mistaken for a fishing boat or something even smaller when viewed on radar screens, the F35’s stealth abilities are limited at best. The plane can be seen on most radar screens, depending on the angle and position of the plane in relation to the radar. The advantage, F-35 advocates say, is that it can be easily mistaken for something smaller and less lethal, and when seen head-on, may produce only a negligible silhouette. Combined with its extreme speed and its dizzying agility, this quasi-stealth attribute might prove crucial in a wider, likely expanding war against ISIS.

But the F-35 has one other minor problem in the stealth department: it is not quiet. Indeed, the Navy’s version of the F-35 makes a penetrating and raucous noise when in action in the sky (I can attest to this firsthand, having seen them—though mostly heard them—in rare flyovers near my home in Jacksonville, Florida, where months ago Navy pilots were breaking in F-35s at Jacksonville Naval Air Station and Cecil Field Naval Facility). Defenders of the fighter jet point out aptly that by the time you get a fix on the bone-rattling roar above, the plane has moved miles ahead of the sound—meaning that the noise it generates is not much use to someone manning an anti-aircraft battery on the ground unless they are using a weapons platform which is extremely fast, powerful, and smart.

Critics of the costly program have rightly complained that the F-35 has turned into a costly boondoggle—a project with a spiraling cost and a seemingly endless series of technical problems. The plane’s immensely complex computer system may be the most baroque, byzantine and mind-boggling thinking machine ever created—too elaborate, a few tech critics worry, to maintain safely and with operational consistency. Even with dozens of back-up systems in place and multiple firewalls to protect its processors, critics say that the plane will be beset by problems for many years. Worse, some say, the expensive plane could all-too-easily result in deadly mishaps and mistakes in even the most routine of operations, not to mention actual combat where nanoseconds have potentially grave consequences.

Still, defenders of the F-35 have also pointed out, with some degree of accuracy, that many of the U.S. military’s most ambitious and game-changing developments have come only after numerous setbacks and complex sets of problem-solving—and the examples are plenty, including the Manhattan Project, which ran well-over its original budget and exacerbated a variety of wartime shortages, to the development of military-grade drones, once considered laughable, gimmicky toys but now deployed routinely and with lethal track records over the battlefields of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Supporters of the F-35 say the that the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corp must ultimately—perhaps inevitably—make the jump into next generation of technological warfare, and that the F-35 will, like its ocean going cousin the USS Zumwalt, give the U.S. and its closest allies the decisive advantage on the battlefields of the 21st Century. Two potential American adversaries in those future contests, Russia and China, are each moving full-bore ahead with similar programs to merge cutting-edge computer technology into a singular piloted weapons platform intended to provide dominance in the skies. And both countries have been working more-or-less around the clock on stealth technologies for the air and seas.

But still other critics worry that the F-35 and its immensely complex computers, servers and hard-drives, will be easy targets for both dedicated hackers and cyber warriors—enemy combatants who may, or so it is assumed, have the ability to hack into the plane’s sophisticated digital systems and wreak havoc, perhaps disabling its most critical features and weapons, send false commands or codes, or even disable the half billion dollar plane altogether. The Pentagon says such scenarios are, of course, possible, but that such is the nature of a future in which war will be won or lost based on the command and prowess of the combatants’ use of advanced technology.

Thus, Defense Secretary Carter’s frank acknowledgement that “there is much work to be done” in his media statement recognizing the initial operational readiness of the F-35; the program has miles to go before the airplane can be reliably deployed into potential battles.

In the meantime, almost everyone—from the F-35’s harshest critics to its staunchest supporters—say that the future of warfare, whether on the conventional battlefield, over the seas, or in the narrow confines of the war on terror, will require ever-smarter weapons and huge leaps forward in technology. The only question is whether the F-35, for all its amazing tools and attributes, is the first real step toward robotic and cyborg war, or merely a cul-de-sac along the way to the future of military technology.

Related Thursday Review articles:

USS Zumwalt Begins Sea Trials; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; December 8, 2015.

USS Milwaukee is Commissioned; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; November 23, 2015.