The F-35 Is Not A Fighter

I’ve been listening to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work speak on the Third Offset Strategy.  He spoke at Defense One Production forum (2015-09-30), and again to Air Command and Staff College students, (2016-05-27).  What follows are some rough notes and paraphrasing, aimed at understanding the strategy, and connecting the F-35 platform and its capabilities to the strategy.

Work gives an interesting description of his job as Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Department of Defense (DOD), which is “one of the biggest corporations on the planet,” and having a “simple” mission, “to organize, train and equip a joint force that is ready for war and that is operated forward to preserve the peace.”

The Roots of the Third Offset Strategy

Why do we care about Third Offset?  “We have to deal with the resurgence of great power competition.”  What is a great power? Work credits John Mearsheimer’s definition, but in his own words, it is “a large state that can take on the dominant global state (the United States) and really give them a run for their money, and have a nuclear deterrent force that can survive a first strike. Don’t really care about economic power, or soft power, the focus is only on military capabilities.”

This is quite interesting, since economic power begets military capabilities.  A poor China and a rich China are worlds’ apart in terms of the military power that they can field.  Also, the stop and start nature of basing agreements with the Philippines under Duterte might remove key bases close to the South China Sea battlefield, having a huge impact on the ability of the US military to project power, as the RAND briefing from yesterday’s post illustrated in rather stark terms.

What has changed to require the Third Offset?  Great power rivals have duplicated our Second Offset strategy, of precision guided munitions, stealth and operational (campaign) level battle networks.  This strategy gave the US and allies an advantage for forty years.  “We’ve lived in a unique time in post-Wesphalian era, where one state is so dominant relative to its peers.”  He sees a dividing line in 2014, when two events occur:

  1. China starts to reclaim islands in the South China Sea
  2. Russia annexes Crimea and destabilizes Ukraine

Also, the nature of technology development has changed as well.  In the Cold War, technological innovation happens in government labs:

  • 1950’s – nuclear weapon miniaturization
  • 1960’s – space and rocket technology
  • 1970’s – precision guided munitions, stealth, information technology
  • 1980’s – large scale system of systems

From 2012, militarily-relevant technologies are happening in the commercial sphere:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  • Autonomous Weapons Systems
  • Robotics
  • Digitization
  • Fight from Range
  • Operate from inside their battle network
  • Cyber and EW, how to take down their network?

“This means we know where to start, but we don’t know where it ends.”  Of this list of technologies, he calls out AI and Autonomy as at the forefront.  He defines Autonomy as “the delegation of decision authority to some entity in the battle network. Manned or unmanned system … what you are looking for is human-machine symbiosis.

What do you need to do this?  First, deep-learning systems.  “Up until 2015, a human analyst was consistently more accurate at identifying an object in an image than a machine. In 2015, this changed. …  when a machine makes a mistake, it makes a big one.”  He then tells the story of a baby holding a baseball bat, “which the machine identified as an enemy armed combatant. … machines looked for patterns, and then provide them to humans who can use their intitive and strategic acuity to determine what’s going on.

The F-35 and Strategy

As an example of how this might play out, a machine can generate the Air Tasking Order (ATO – which is a large document that lists all of the sorties and targets to be prosecuted by joint air forces in a 24-hour period, per Wikipedia) … in minutes or hours, instead of many analysts working for hours or days. “We are after human-computer collaborative decision-making.” In 1997, super computer “Deep Blue” beat Gary Kasparov in chess, which was a big deal at the time. In 2005, however, two amateur chess players using three computers beat a field of grand masters and field of super computers. “It was the human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of the computer that we believe will be the most important thing.”  He then goes on to highlight an example of this human-machine collaboration:

The F-35 is not a fighter plane. It shouldn’t even be called the F-35. It should be called the BN-35, the “Battle Network”-35. It is a human-machine collaboration machine that is unbelievable. The Distributed Aperture System (DAS), and all the sensors, and the network which pours into the plane; the plane processes it and displays it to the pilot, so that the pilot can make accurate, relevant and quick decisions. That’s why that airplane is going to be so good.

Work also covers another topic near and dear to me, wargaming.  Perhaps a war game is a great opportunity for humans and machines to practice collaboration?

We are reinvigorating wargaming, which has really gone down over the past years. We’re looking at more at the service level, more at the OSD level, and these are very, very helpful for us to develop innovative leaders, and also helpful for us to go after new and innovative concepts.

He mentions the Schriever Wargame. “[O]nce you start to move forces, your great power rival will start to use cyber to try to slow down those forces … the distinction between away games and home games is no longer relevant to us.”

Next, I’ll look at the perspectives of the services as they adopt the F-35 in different ways.


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Geoffrey Clark
Geoffrey Clark

Geoffrey Clark is a data modeler, database architect and business analyst primarily in the supply chain, transportation and logistics industries. He is an avid war gamer and budding defense analyst. Lucidata Informatics provides database design services, as well as data products, deployment and update services.

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  1. This might be not directly relevant for the article, but Dupuy was never a great fan of Mearsheimer, I remember his criticism on the 3:1 rule 🙂

  2. I’m not sure if Col. Dupuy disapproved of all of Dr. Mearsheimer’s work, but they definitely disagreed about that.

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