Note: I do not speak for the trees, nor the U.S. Government, its affiliates, or my employer; the standard disclaimers always apply.
A couple of days ago, Sweden announced that it had not only reinstated its draft, but increased its defense spending by 3 percent, citing Russian Aggression in the area. Lockheed officials familiar with the F-35 program tell Reuters that four countries (Spain, Switzerland, Finland, and Belgium) consider purchasing the F-35 after its phenomenal performance Red Flag, the the annual combat exercise held at Nellis AFB. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump puts "on hold" the idea of working with Russia against ISIS, inflames nearly everyone by lambasting the New START nuclear deal, and issues an ultimatum to NATO to "pay their fair share."
It's been a crazy month, and things don't seem to be slowing down for the beleaguered administration. The alleged Russian ties to the Donald Trump campaign - you know the one that championed the grossly exaggerated Clinton E-mail Scandal - continue to mount to the extreme dissatisfaction of the Trump Administration. It's hard to shake the idea that President Trump is going to need to take a harder stance on Russia soon in order to dissuade the American Public that these scandals - real or imagined - have any influence on American Foreign Policy.
Such a pivot may have occurred early February, when the administration touts that lifting sanctions is a possibility, only to reverse the decision amid public outcry a day later. While that pivot is absolutely vital to international security, and those sanctions are credited with stopping the Ukrainian offensive, the pivot comes at a time rife with potential for conflict. With the U.S. wanting to show NATO the importance of retaining American backing, and an Administration desperate to appear tough on Russia, The Accidental World War, appears more likely than ever. The easiest way to avoid accidental conflicts between the two countries, both with their own geopolitical priorities in the fight against ISIL, is to remove the element of conflict.
Consider the following questions:
- How does a NATO country, like Belgium or Spain, raise its defense spending rapidly over the short term (i.e. 4 years) without incurring the risk associated with research and development or costs associated with increased manpower?
- How does a businessman-turned-politician drive down the costs of a weapon's program whose costs are "out of control?"
- How does one make good on promises to "bring manufacturing jobs back home?" to appease Economic Security voters?
- How does an administration, in dire need of showing strength against a country who allegedly helped it get elected do so without leading to an accidental international incident?
The answer to all of these is through Foreign Military Sales; the one thing that the U.S. government has been decidedly good at over the last several decades. Currently, the most prolific export of the U.S. military sale market is the F-35 and it has been catapulted into the limelight as a cornerstone in the next Cold War.
Conducting operations in the same airspace as your, erhm, frenemy comes with the increased risk of causing an accidental international incident, like the one in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian Flanker. While there were a lot of concerns about retaliation after that incident, these concerns were generally dismissed as the incident resolved peacefully. However, with recent Russian threats to "shoot down U.S. planes" operating in Syria, and a U.S. administration that cannot afford to appear soft on its Kremlin counterparts, the stakes for U.S. pilots operating near Russian interests has never been higher. More important still is that these pilots will still be called upon to conduct their operations regardless of the risks to avoid causing the U.S. to acquiesce too much geopolitical power in the region.
Enter the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35).
With the F-35's revolutionary advances in stealth technology, recent Russian posturing appears less credible - you can't shoot what you can't see. Without the ability to act on these threats, the U.S. administration is free to act tough on Russia with relative impunity, maintaining U.S. interests overseas and earning the political capital to dissuade notions - real or imagined - that the administration benefited from Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
Most importantly: Were Russian surface to air missiles in Syria, or Chinese Aircraft in the South China Sea, to engage in outwardly aggressive acts against coalition F-35s, the airframe is more than capable of defending itself accomplishing its objective in denied airspace. What's more, is that fourth generation wingmen flying alongside the fifth generation F-35 are also seeing dramatic performance increases in combat exercises. Acting as the quarterback for its fourth generation counterparts, the F-35 is a "force multiplier" capable of increasing the combat effectiveness of everyone in the area. General Christopher C Bogdan, in a recent report to Congress, states plainly:
The F-35 isn't just another fighter jet — it's a flying all-spectrum sensor node that can fight without being seen and elevate the performance of entire squadrons by sharing data on the battle space.
This fusion of information warfare with the traditional air-to-air aspect signals a shift in air warfare doctrine. While technologies like Link-16 have enabled fourth generation fighters to share data among one another, early reports promise a new level of data fusion for the fifth generation of jets. General David L Goldfien lays it out simply:
"I hope over time we can actually evolve our discussion from platform vs. platform ... to a network vs. network. It's not about what the F-35, or the J-20, or the F-22, or the J-31 can actually do in a one vs. one. We do family of systems," said Goldfein.
He goes on to explain that before the F-35 even gets into position, "the cyber campaign had been raging ... the space campaign has been raging," and the pilot is tuned into every development along the way, increasing the lethal efficacy of entire air forces. Coupling the ability for these fifth generation fighters to control battlefields with the freedom of movement that the low observable technology provides is nothing sort of a terrifying and breathtaking display of military power. Such a display has already been made by the U.S. and select allies who have invested in the JSF program, but adversarial nations have been pursuing their own technologies.
A pursuit that has begun the new Cold War.
As with the original Cold War, when the U.S. sought to maintain a numerical and technological edge over Russia in the emerging field of nuclear technologies, so too will this Cold War have the same objectives: Maintain an edge in emerging technologies. Fortunately, even in a worst-case scenario, the advent of fifth generation fighters isn't likely to see the end of the human race.
However, so long as Russia continues to set its eyes on expanding its influence through interventions in Syria, or annexations of places like Crimea, we can expect to see increased reactions from the U.S., the main vehicle of which - especially with a war-weary populace - will be the F-35. The only likely counter to it, aside from developing larger missiles that "get close enough," will be the PAK FA. Similarly, so long as the U.S. has a vested interest in deterring Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, conflict over maintaining freedom of movement between the F-35 and J-31 seems inevitable.
Regardless of how, when, or where the first interactions occur - we can expect it to set the tone of foreign policy for decades. While the nuclear triad remains a powerful deterrent, it's ultimately an ineffective foreign policy tool; this new generation of aircraft - and the sweeping changes it will bring to Air Force Doctrine - will influence the geopolitical landscape, for better or worse, for decades.