A few weeks ago I got a very close look at a F-35, and was able to talk a bit with one of the test pilots. “This is not an aircraft,” he told me. It’s more a kind of spaceship.” I believe he is right. This is not an aircraft, at least not the kind of aircraft we are used to.
Two generations, face to face
This 5th generation of fighters still has a lot of detractors who believe that the cost of this aircraft was excessive. They went so far as to ask Boeing to price out a comparable F-18 Super Hornet. The press played up the angle that, in a simulation of a dogfight, the prototype of the mighty F-35 was badly beaten by a 40-year-old F-16 Falcon.
This made me think about an old story… but before I get into that, let me introduce myself and tell you why I talk so much about aircraft. I was recently appointed as the Global Aerospace & Defense Industry Director at ANSYS, a position that lets me follow two of my biggest passions: aerospace and technology. I have spent the last 18 years of my life advising companies about how to develop their strategic thinking around emerging technologies in product engineering, rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing and, of course, engineering simulation.
But my first passion is aeronautics. When I was a child I lived close to an Air Force base. They had old F-104 Starfighters, and every time they scrambled into the sky, I rushed to the window to see the long tail of the afterburners as they got smaller and smaller. Years later I joined the Italian Air Force and started my military pilot training. Though my career took a different path, I still fly regularly to this day and I try to learn as much as I can about aerospace.
Now let’s go back to our story.
Would you believe me if I told you that the old F-104 was able to outperform the new, super-maneuverable F-16? The F-104 is a small aircraft with almost no wings and a small tail. Its radar signature is pretty small — too small to be detected by the first version of the F-16’s radar. During the first combat exercises, the F-104 pilots were able to avoid detection by the radar on the F-16 and surprise the F-16 pilots, who were looking for enemies on their green screens and were flying high (and were therefore visible to the F-104 pilots) so they could use their radar.
After suffering these first ’embarrassing’ defeats, the F-16 pilots started to look for EMI emissions to localize the F-104s, but the F-104 pilots countered this move by switching off their IFF and radios to stay invisible. In this way, the F-104s maintained a very good winning ratio versus the F-16s, until the airborne warning and control system (AWACS) came onto the scene. The AWACS’ integration of different sources of sensors and information for detecting the F-104s made the F-16s unbeatable.
The new generation of fighters
So how does this apply to the F-35? In both cases (F-35 versus F-16, and F-16 versus F-104), the new, superior technology was initially beaten by the older technology. These unexpected outcomes happened because the newer technology was not equipped with the full operating capabilities it would ultimately have. The F-35 was not designed with dogfights in mind. As I said at the beginning of this article, the F35 is not (just) a fighter aircraft. It is a piece of an incredibly complex puzzle that is well described by the “Air Force Future Operating Concepts” document, whose central idea is that “In 2035, Air Forces will leverage operational agility as a way to adapt swiftly to any situation or enemy action. Operational agility is the ability to rapidly generate — and shift among — multiple solutions for a given challenge,” and it requires an unprecedented situational awareness for the pilot and their command centers.
We are shifting the priorities from air superiority, air reconnaissance and coordination of air defense to a more multi-domain command and control that includes global integrated ISR, rapid mobility and adaptive response. In this scenario, information is vital. What the Air Force is expecting from the F-35 is much, much more than to win in a dogfight against an opponent. They are expecting the F-35 to be a piece of a vast network, able to collect information, elaborate scenarios, use artificial intelligence to create awareness and suggest options, and respond quickly to any threat. In this environment, every aircraft is a sensor, a node of a network, and can receive, send and evaluate information.
Let’s discuss how to design them at the ANSYS Pacific Northwest Innovation Conference in Seattle
Of course, this shift from individual aircraft to aircraft systems is creating a number of challenges in aircraft design. Engineering simulation will play an increasingly bigger role in solving these challenges as the complexity of these systems increases. I’ll talk about some of these challenges in defense and commercial aviation, together with some other great speakers, at the ANSYS Pacific Northwest Innovation Conference on May 23rd in Seattle. Please join us to catch up on the latest aerospace developments and learn how simulation can help you meet the demands of this quickly changing market. You can find more information and register today.