F-35 and situational awareness.

I’m getting restless. I have this thing where periodically I have to go climb a mountain or do something dangerous just for the sake of it being dangerous and I can feel it creeping up on me. I think I need to get back into paintball.

I was reading one of those articles about a clean F-35 being defeated in a dogfight with a combat loaded F-16 and a lot of the F-35 guys were talking about how the sensors of the F-35 allow for better situational awareness and this has totally changed the nature of air warfare. There was one article I read by an ex-Tornado pilot and he was saying how in the Tornado half of the challenge of combat flying is trying to build a mental picture from visual, RWR, radar, radio communications etc into a single integrated picture of what is going on around you.

This struck me as something quite obvious just from playing flight sims. If you play a flight sim where you’re flying something ancient half the time you’re screaming “What’s shooting at me!?” to your wingman, who has no clue either. Then fast forward to EF2000 and suddenly you have DAS integrated onto a moving map and you know where everything is. You might have just taken off from Oslo Gardermoen, but you know what the air situation is like over your target three-hundred miles away and where SAMs are because you have information from AWACS and JTIDS. In Jane’s F-15 this is information that you constantly have to ask for and then mentally compile information from all the other systems to try and get some idea of what’s going on around you. Even in Falcon 4.0 this is the case, you’re constantly on the radio trying to piece together a picture of the battle.

DAS changes all this. In EF2000 I run solo missions to hit the two bridges at the top of Norway to cut Russian supply lines and I do it with radar and ECM switched off and I fly at ultra low level, just depending on DAS for a picture of what’s going on around me. I can see Russian CAP and decide long before I come into radar range what action I’m going to take or I can see where SAM sites are and decide how I’m going to navigate to avoid them rather than, as in an F-16 or a Phantom or F-15 finding out there’s a SAM site when it paints me with it’s radar.

If you’re getting into dogfights in a 4.5 or 5th generation fighter and you don’t have overwhelming superiority of position going into the fight or overwhelming numbers then you’re doing something wrong. Having that information gives you tactical options that other aircraft just don’t have. You can decide when and where to fight. You can decide that the enemy is superior and avoid them if you want and that’s what makes aircraft like F-35 the future of air warfare.

It’s like paintball: the team that wins is the team that is most situationally aware. It’s the team that is communicating the best, the team that’s careful in its movements, the team that uses discretion and fights only on its own terms and doesn’t mind running away from a fight when it doesn’t start from a position of dominance. The team that wins is not the team that’s awesome in firefights but has no fieldcraft and doesn’t constantly seek information on the state of battlespace. My squad are awesome at this, we want to know everything. Where were you in a fire fight last? Who is playing today? Have you noticed any concentrations of the other teams players? What’s the next mission coming up? What are the best approach routes to the target? All these things let you know where the other team is likely to be and so how you can engage them on your own terms, which are terms of total superiority.

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