How Ukraine gave Putin a bloody nose – and rewrote the future of air power

“Unlike anything I’ve certainly been around in the past,” says Sqn Ldr Campbell. “The ability to just turn up and join in with a Norwegian, Dutch, Belgian or Polish, perhaps in the future, four-ship [formation] of F-35s. To make your foreign aid seamless is the way we need to be going to increase our combat mass.”

That’s where the West sees the future of air power: in the face of non-NATO attempts to match Western fighter jet technology, different nations will pool their fighting power, slotting in seamlessly alongside each other whenever needed.

Illustrating the point, Sqn Ldr Campbell mentions that in February he commanded a detachment of F-35s that went to Estonia “to show capability and to show solidarity with NATO”.

Mixing technology and the human touch

Back in Norfolk, Flatman’s squadron is Britain’s F-35B operational conversion unit. It takes trained pilots from elsewhere in the armed forces and novices from the fighter jet pilot school at RAF Valley, and trains them to fly and fight – helping them get to grips with the F-35B’s Harrier-style lift fan and ability to hover above the ground.

It relies on a combination of technology and the human touch. Continued investment in both human fighter pilots and ever up-to-date jets points to the future of air combat: well-trained flying personnel and technologically advanced equipment. Drones, it seems, have not yet fully taken over.

The F-35s they fly are the very embodiment of overmatch – the concept of crushing enemies through technological superiority. Overmatch even stretches to the very skin of the F-35, designed to make the aeroplane much less noticeable on radar than its contemporaries.

Officially the counter-radar technology in the F-35’s exterior surface coating is referred to as ‘low observable’. Designers learned from an incident over Serbia in 1999 involving an F-117 Nighthawk, when the $40m (£32.8m) jet was shot down. Now, the modern jet’s highly classified low-observable coating is designed so radar waves flow over and along it in carefully controlled ways rather than reflecting back to a hostile receiver.

That low observability comes at a price: maintaining the special coating needs lots of highly-skilled tradesmen, and above all, lots of time.

Removing certain external access panels on the F-35, for instance, means breaking the smooth outlines of the anti-radar coating. The process of reapplying it can take up to two days as the special mix of materials cures and fully hardens.

Neil “Shiner” Wright, BAE Systems’ ground training delivery manager at RAF Marham, is in charge of training military and civilian personnel alike in how to maintain the aircraft.

Holding a wooden mock-up of an external panel, cross-sectioned to show how repairs are carried out to the low observable coating, he says the design owes much to the F-22 – the previous American stealth fighter still flown today.

“Low observable is new technology for the UK”, explains Gary Jones, a BAE contractor. Jets of bygone eras, such as the Gloster Javelin, the Harrier and even the Eurofighter Typhoon, feature metal aircraft coated with paint. Now, the technological advantage required by the Western way of aerial warfare comes at a high price in time, money and skills.

In Jones’ words, F-35 maintenance is less about “hacking and bashing” and has more in common with “arts and crafts”. Shiner jokes that trainees “who build aircraft models and paint them are better than old mechanics like me.”

So critical is the low-observable coating that ALIS, the all-encompassing IT system used for tracking maintenance of the F-35, has a whole routine for addressing dents. Maintainers must trace over damaged areas on a sheet of acetate and scan that into the IT system. Complex algorithms work out whether the damage is repairable and decree whether it can be fixed or replaced.

Steve Brown, BAE’s head of UK training, observes that Britain maintains a “pay to be different” stance with the F-35, having established its own sovereign training facility.

While there’s doubtless good foreign policy reasons for not relying on the US-approved F-35 repair and overhaul facility in Italy, commercial reasons loom large: seven other European countries are buying F-35s. All their maintainers will need training and their aeroplanes will Eventually need overhauling, too. Overmatch isn’t just a way of winning wars, it’s a way of doing business.

A new generation of pilot

The state of the art in Western air combat lies with humans commanding vastly powerful machines, packed with sensors and secure networking.

Stew Campbell’s boss, Wing Commander David Tait, observes that F-35 pilots are “more of a systems manager than a pilot” in many ways, with the air force looking for people who have “the ability to absorb the massive amount of information” generated by the jet and the other radars and tactical systems it communicates with.

“It’s almost like playing a musical instrument, to be honest with you,” says the commanding officer of 617 Sqn. Whimsical the comparison may be, but the ability to confidently handle multiple, simultaneous sources of information points to the potential future of air combat in light of the Ukrainian war experience.

Dr David Jordan of the Freeman Air and Space Institute at King’s College, London agrees the F-35 and its capabilities will dictate the future of air combat, at least in Western eyes.

In the near term, he says, the evolution of air power will be “complementary” to existing older technologies. Recognising that overmatch is simply too expensive for some countries to credibly embrace, Dr Jordan says the future lies in building military aircraft whose strengths and weaknesses can be played off each other.

He explains: “The realisation that if you pair a fifth-generation aircraft with a sort of 4.5 generation aircraft like Typhoon, you can get a whole series of very interesting effects and outcomes.”

Generations, in the world of fighter jet design and development, are a rough way of measuring progress. The world’s only fifth generation jet is the F-35. Below it sits the BAE Systems Typhoon, Britain’s other main combat jet, as well as non -Western aircraft such as Russia’s Sukhoi Su-35 air superiority fighter.

Outside the ‘generations’ of human-piloted aircraft are developments in recent years suggesting humans might – at some stage – be cut out of the cockpit altogether.

Could technology take over?

Boeing has ploughed billions of dollars into its Loyal Wingman and MQ-25 Stingray drones, the latter of which shows the most promise. The former is an unmanned vehicle, demonstrating how future fighter pilots could use tech to command one or more robot wingmen. The MQ-25, meanwhile, does not fight but is intended to be a flying petrol station – a tanker that lets other aircraft refuel.

Such uses of crewless technology to extend the endurance of human-flown aeroplanes make a tech-fuelled future all of a sudden appear much closer.

Over the skies of Ukraine, drones have been notable mainly for their low-tech uses. Small consumer-grade craft are used to fly hand grenades over enemy lines and drop them onto the heads of enemy soldiers before they can react. Larger drones such as Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 are used for aerial reconnaissance. But air-to-air fighting is largely absent from the picture.

“We’ve seen too many examples in the past of people commenting on getting carried away by the technology,” cautions Dr Jordan. Echoing the warning from the USAF’s Dr Venable about drawing premature conclusions from the Ukraine conflict, he compares the trend among some thinkers of saying drones can do it all to Duncan Sandys’ defence review of 1957.

Then, as now, the debate was between human-piloted aeroplanes and the drones of their day, guided missiles such as the Bristol Bloodhound. It took years for the RAF to recover from the Conservative government’s decision to bet big on missiles rather than human- flown aeroplanes. Arguably the British aviation industry never did recover from the resulting series of state-encouraged mergers.

Calling for a “more incremental approach”, Dr Jordan says Western air power thinkers shouldn’t assume that modern drones will be “able to do everything that something like an F-22, or a Tempest, or an F-35 can do now .”

British thinking on future combat air power could be described as pragmatic, focusing on the Tempest aircraft from BAE Systems.

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