The West’s Best Fighter Jets, Together in Virginia
U.S., British and French fighters test air-combat integration
The Atlantic Trident ’17 exercise, held from April 12 to 28, 2017 at Joint Base Langley-Eustice in Virginia, included a “Blue Air” force of U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing and F-35 Lightning IIs from Eglin Air Force Base, Typhoons of the Royal Air Force and French air force Rafales.
They represented perhaps the most technologically advanced assemblage of jet fighters anywhere in the world. Integrating and working together.
The adversaries, or “Red Air,” included USAF F-15E Strike Eagles of the 391st Fighter Squadron from Mountain Home Air Force Base and T-38A Talons of the 71st Fighter Training Squadron based at Langley. Additional assets included the E-3A from Tinker Air Force Base and a variety of tankers, including a French KC-135 and an a USAF KC-10 from the 305th Air Mobility Wing out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
A 1st Fighter Wing F-22 taxis at Langley. Todd Miller photo
Aside from the primary training objectives, the exercise also provided the opportunity to commemorate 100 years of aerial cooperation between France and the United States.
From the outside, the lethal capabilities of Blue Air appeared to be overwhelming. However, consider that the 71st FTS pilots fly daily as adversaries against F-22s and many possess their own experience flying Raptors.
RAF Typhoons on the ramp at Langley. Todd Miller photo
Col. Pete Fesler, 1st Fighter Wing commander, noted that Atlantic Trident ’17 took integration to a new extreme. On a tactical level, integration historically involves a serial employment of aircraft relieving each other over the course of a long mission, or the geographical deconfliction of aircraft, say, attacking ground targets in the same area.
As Fesler explained, today the United States and its allies are taking integration much farther.
It’s not difficult to envision a mixed strike package of Rafales and F-35s or a combat air patrol blending Typhoons and Raptors. This level of integration poses big problems for an adversary. The enemy may be fixated on attacking, for example, a flight of Rafales, thus leaving itself vulnerable to ambush by stealthy F-22s.
French Rafales at Langley. Todd Miller photo
The abundance of information available on the battlefield today drives a much higher level of integration, Fesler explained. Multiple people and assets may be involved in finding, identifying and targeting the enemy. A single pilot might take the final step of firing the missile that kills the target, but he wouldn’t have found his way to that particular merge unless the other assets helped to get him there.
Atlantic Trident ’17 provided an opportunity to demonstrate how the advancement of aircraft, tactics and integration is driving change in Western fighter forces. For many years, the F-22 with its superior sensors has played the role of “quarterback” during an air battle.
F-22s at Langley. Todd Miller photo
But with the arrival of the F-35 with its own excellent sensors, plus the wider availability of the high-performing Typhoon and Rafale, the notion of a single quarterback is changing. Fesler said the quarterback notion is starting to become almost a misnomer now in that there are multiple possible quarterbacks.
Rather, the emphasis is on integration — positioning aircraft so that each can provide information to the larger force at the right place and time.
Fifth-generation stealth fighters such as the F-22 and F-35 — and to a lesser extent the “generation-4.5” Typhoon and Rafale — have altered our understanding of the classic air-to-air engagement, Fesler said. The classic approach of shooting one’s missiles and turning before the adversary can get in his own shot is predicated on the fact that the adversary even sees you.
An F-15E at Langley. Todd Miller photo
Stealth means the enemy might never see you. Fifth-gen fighters can roam around the battlefield faster than the speed of sound, all while building a three-dimensional picture of everything within a couple hundred miles in all directions.
The pilot of a fifth-gen fighter may shoot a missile and monitor to make sure it’s effective. If the missile misses, he’s in good position for a follow-up shot.
Atlantic Trident ’17. U.S. Air Force photo
But even the most advanced technology has limits. “The man in the machine still makes a difference,” Fesler said. “You can have the most lethal fighter in the world, but if you make a mistake a far inferior aircraft can shoot you out of the sky. Training still matters. If that were not the case, we’d buy the machines, park them and never fly them and when war kicked off, jump in them and go and fly.”
“That in fact is not the case and you can lose a war with the best equipment if you don’t know how to use it right. If your tactics aren’t sound, if your skills aren’t automatic, you can still lose.”