When a group of hot-shot fighter pilots praise computers over speed, it's clear times have changed. Fifth generation aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II, aren't just powerful — they're exponentially superior tactical machines.
When he first flew the F-22, Marine Corps Lt. Col. David Berke, who flew the Raptor as an Air Force exchange pilot and now flies the jump-jet F-35B, remarked, "I was enamored by just how powerful the airplane is … but [that's] the least important thing about the F-22."
The F-22 is a supercomputer with a fighter jet wrapped around it. (Photo from U.S. Air Force)
No pilot who flies a fifth generation fighter "will tell you that what's impressive is what's on the outside," Berke said during a Nov. 7 conference sponsored by the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Although fourth generation fighter pilots might have felt a "need for speed", now information is what wins battles. In a high technology war, Berke suggests that the fastest airplane could be the first to die.
Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Gunn said the F-35A that he now flies "is a lot of sensors and computers … a processing machine that has an aircraft wrapped around it."
Air Force Maj. David Deptula, who flew the F-22 in combat in Iraq and Syria, said what was "particularly useful" to U.S. and allied air forces was the Raptor's ability "to detect targets in the air and on the ground and distribute that information in near real time.
"With that information, you're enabling everybody else," he said.
As potential adversaries field more advanced defensive systems, Berke said a key question about new airframes is "how survivable they are, and how lethal." The information processing capabilities of fifth generation fighters "improves both of those, exponentially," he said.
And with their ability to share the information, the fifth generation planes also "make the fourth gen aircraft more survivable," he added.
Several of the pilots noted that the F-22 and F-35 not only collect massive amounts of data on the threats and other elements of the combat environment, they process the data and present it as crucial information that the pilot can use to make decisions.
An F-35C Lightning II on USS George Washington during F-35C Development Test III. (Photo from Lockheed Martin)
"The big thing is not so much the sensors on the airplane, it's the computers," Gunn said. Instead of the pilot having to devote a lot of effort operating the sensors and analyzing data, "the airplane is doing that. I'm the one who gets to make the decisions."
Major Andrew Stolee, an F-22 instructor at the Air Force Weapons School, said an increased speed of decision making is an important factor "in how we conduct air warfare. The biggest gain we get out of these airplanes is what they allow the human to do."
Although the F-22 currently has problems sharing its sensor information digitally with fourth generation aircraft, Gunn said the F-35 has a Link 16 system that allows it to share battlespace information with the older airframes.
"In a recent exercise," he said, "when the F-22s ran out of missiles the older fighters asked them to stay to help them find targets."
"Enabling all the fifth generation aircraft to share battlespace information with the older aircraft, which will make up most of the fighter forces for decades, is one of the major requirements for the future," said Maj. Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the Air Force Air Combat Center.
Another "bill to pay," VanHerck said, is the need to greatly improve the current air combat training ranges, which cannot adequately duplicate the integrated air defense threats the new fighters must be able to handle. "We're going to see a lot of our training in the virtual, simulated environment," he said.
With their unmatched technological advancements and superior aerodynamic designs, fifth generation fighters don't just exceed air domination capabilities--they define them.