In December, Business Insider interviewed a former US Navy Commander, Chris Harmer, who had a unique idea for an alternative to the F-35.
Harmer suggested that in 2001, when the F-35 program first came together, military planners simply could have updated existing airframes, like the carrier based F-18, with the advanced avionics and sensor fusion featured in the F-35.
The article voiced a somewhat contrary opinion and imagined a world where one and a half decades and hundreds of billions of dollars had been spent towards ends other than the F-35.
It met with swift disapproval from defence aviation writers and members of the F-35 community.
US Marine Corps Lt. Col David “Chip” Berke, the only Marine in history to fly the F-22 and the F-35, and also the first squadron commander of operational F-35Bs, got in touch with Business Insider as a result of the article.
Berke insisted that the idea that fourth generation fighters could be upgraded to do what the F-35 does was “preposterous.”
According to Berke, legacy aircraft designed without sensor fusion in mind, planes meant for a bygone era of aerial combat, just couldn’t handle the F-35’s responsibilities.
“What we’re really trying to do,” with fifth generation aircraft “legacy aircraft can’t do. Even if you could, without low observability capability (stealth), what would be the point?” Berke said.
Berke has seen first hand the exponential shift in capabilities between fourth and fifth generation aircraft. Berke logged thousands of hours in the F-18 and served two combat tours in Iraq before transitioning to the F-22 and then the F-35.
He has talked at length about the seismic shift between the two modes of operation, comparing the stark and conceptual differences between the F-18 and an F-35 to the leap between a corded wall phone and an iPhone. Berke and pretty much every single other F-35 program participant on record share this view.
‘The biggest advocates for fifth-generation aircraft are the ones flying them. Take a bunch of pilots who flew fourth gens, and you put them in an F-35 and they say it’s the most important thing. The people that complain the most are the ones that aren’t involved in the program, and that know the least about it,” said Berke.
“These pilots who grew up in the Hornet (F-18), that have thousands of hours of combat experience” find the idea that you could simply update legacy platforms to reach the level of the F-35 “laughable,” according to Berke.
Yet Berke understands where the criticism of the F-35 program comes from. He admits that it’s even difficult for F-35 pilots to realise the full scope of the Joint Strike Fighter’s revolutionary capabilities, and that building such capabilities took a lot of time and effort, sometimes more than what program directors estimated.
“Innovation is really hard, expensive, and fraught with criticism. The easiest thing in the world is to criticise innovation,” said Berke.
But given his role as a former commanding officer in an F-35 squadron, Berke has nothing but confidence in the future of US air dominance and the F-35’s role in that picture.
“Dinosaurs look at a new piece of technology and ask: What can this do for me?” said Berke, who sees a generation of young F-35 pilots meeting the groundbreaking technology and saying “what can I do with this technology? What can I do with this aeroplane?”
According to Berke, the F-35 program has shown tremendous promise even in its infancy.
“We don’t even know 50-80% of what this aeroplane can do,” Berke said.
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