Our past discussions have touched on the use of the F-35 as a local controller for an Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) strike aircraft. The concept is that we are not at the stage of autonomous programming behavior that would allow the UCLASS to truly function on its own in a contested and complex environment so the F-35 would act as a man-in-the-loop local controller for the UCLASS. Let’s look a bit closer at this concept.
We have to start by stipulating that this is almost entirely uninformed conjecture. There is no official doctrine related to this that I’m aware of. Further, the UCLASS not only hasn’t been built, yet, but hasn’t even been spec’ed. In fact, we don’t even have agreement on the conceptual scope of the UCLASS design. There are two camps, one pushing for an ISR UCLASS and the other for a full, deep penetration strike aircraft.
Further, we have no concrete description of what “control” entails. Is it remote control flying all the way to the target? Is it analyzing sensor data and then designating targets and allocating ordnance? Is it simply being available as a human fail safe but otherwise remaining inactive during the course of the UCLASS mission? Something else?
Thus, it’s premature, at best, and irresponsible, for sure, to begin analyzing the F-35/UCLASS control methodology so that’s exactly what we’ll attempt to do!
The success of the concept depends, in large measure, on the degree of physical separation (the range) between the UCLASS and the F-35. If, because of ECM, jamming, and communications difficulties, the F-35 has to fly wingtip to wingtip (on a relative basis, not literally) all the way to the release point then there’s no need for the UCLASS – the F-35 would already be there and could simply release the ordnance itself.
Control distance is also an issue as it relates to the F-35’s survival and involvement in combat. If the F-35 has to be close enough to the strike area that enemy fighters and SAMs can find it and engage, the F-35 will probably be too busy to fighting for its life to control another aircraft.
Thus, the control range is a critical factor but it’s the realistic control range that can be achieved in an electromagnetically contested environment with active enemy ECM and jamming. Currently, we believe that we can control UAVs half-way around the world but we’re going to find that in a war against a peer our communications and control capability is going to be seriously degraded. ECM, jamming, degraded GPS, loss of satellite comm relays, and cyber attacks will conspire to render our peacetime expectations completely invalid. Similarly, our optimistic assessment of the control distance between an F-35 and a UCLASS is, undoubtedly, going to prove invalid. I would guess that the control distance will be a degraded line of sight, meaning around half line of sight.
I also wonder about the control signal reception and transmission. Will the F-35 control aircraft have to maintain a specific attitude relative to the UCLASS in order to maintain a directional link and antenna geometery? Will a maneuvering F-35 disrupt its own control signal by masking and unmasking its antenna? I have absolutely no idea. I merely pose the question.
Let’s move on to the actual control. Are we going to ask a single pilot to fly his F-35, monitor threats to his own aircraft, fight for survival, and simultaneously control some number of UCLASS? This sounds like way too much of a workload for a single pilot. That leaves us with the need for a two-seat F-35.
Aside from the fact that there is no two-seat combat F-35, can a backseat operator effectively control another aircraft while his own plane is engaged in combat and pulling high-g’s or will the combat maneuvering render any hope of control null? It would take a very calm, cool, and collected backseater to methodically work his control charges while the aircraft is fighting for its life! This gets back to the previous question of standoff distance between the F-35 and UCLASS. Without knowing the control distance, we can’t really address this aspect intelligently. Still, it seems quite likely that a two seat F-35 will be needed since by definition these missions will be in the heart of enemy defenses and the F-35 pilot will probably be fully occupied monitoring and maneuvering to avoid those defenses.
Now, let’s consider the opportunity cost associated with this concept. If the UCLASS requires an F-35 controller, that means we need to send two aircraft (or whatever the control ratio is) to execute a single ordnance release. Not very efficient. Further, tying up F-35s as controllers means that they can’t be executing another mission – the opportunity cost. Worse, the controller would be the Navy’s absolute top of the line aircraft – almost a double opportunity cost hit. It would be one thing if the controller were a helo that didn’t have any other high priority mission to do anyway but the F-35 will, presumably, be in ultimate demand and tying them down as controllers is a big hit on the air wing’s overall capability. Of course, to be fair, if the target is sufficiently valuable then the opportunity cost is worth it. However, the implication of that is that only a very small handful of missions would justify the use of the UCLASS/F-35 combo. In that case, one has to question the usefulness of the UCLASS to begin with.
Another variation to the control scheme that has been proposed is a string of relay aircraft sending control and/or data streams back to the carrier. This simply takes the preceding concept and multiplies it in regards to the opportunity cost. If we have to dedicate several F-35s to each UCLASS we’re killing our combat efficiency.
Frankly, I don’t see the value of the strike UCLASS and the need for an F-35 controller (if, indeed, it does!) diminishes the value even further.