On Monday, Russia issued an unusually cryptic threat, specifically to U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on Twitter. The message cited the F-35, America’s most advanced stealth fighter, and included footage of Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles shooting down aircraft.

Just in case Russian officials decide to pull their tweet down at any point in the future, the written content reads:

‘If a Russia… ever was to see an F-35 inside its airspace’, we would love to send Chief of Staff of the @usairforce Gen. David L. Goldfein ‘message with two words’ — ‘remember Vietnam’
‘An F-35 will never be alone’

While seemingly nonsensical, the tweet was actually a variation on General Goldfein’s own quotation. He made the following statement at the Brookings Institution on Tuesday:

If a China or a Russia or another adversary on the globe ever were to see an F-35 inside their airspace … I would love to send them all a message with two words: ‘We’re here.’ ”

“If they ever do see an F-35, which is highly unlikely, they will never be alone,” Goldfein added. “It will be part of a penetrating joint team.”

The F-35’s unique data fusion capabilities make it well-suited for a combat role no other fighter has ever served before: the “quarterback of the joint team,” as Goldfein put it. The quarterback analogy has actually been floated by a number of Air Force public affairs officials in recent months. It suggests the nomenclature is part of an information effort aimed at helping the American people better appreciate what the F-35 brings to the table — outside of what has come to be expected of a fighter.

While most tend to focus on the F-35’s low-observability (created through a combination of design and methodology), many within the F-35 community will attest that the platform’s sensor network and data fusion capabilities are just as significant an improvement over fourth-generation jets, like America’s workhorse F-15s, F-16s, and F/A-18s.

Russia issues strange warning to Gen. David L. Goldfein and F-35s specifically on Twitter
(US Navy)

Previous fighters displayed multiple data feeds across a number of screens and readouts, often providing contradictory information. The F-35 combines data gathered through a complex suite of internal and external sensors to produce a unified vision of the battlefield shown through two touch-screen displays and the pilot’s augmented reality helmet. In fact, during nighttime operations, F-35 pilots can switch to the augmented reality view, not only showing enemy aircraft with a “diamond” reticle, ground targets with triangles, and the course and trajectory of friendly fighters in the area, but also allowing them to literally see through the fuselage of their own jets.

Russia issues strange warning to Gen. David L. Goldfein and F-35s specifically on Twitter
Each F-35 helmet costs in the neighborhood of $400,000 in order to deliver this level of capability. (USAF Photo)

Because the F-35 boasts a level of situational awareness never before seen in a fighter, its role as a “quarterback” that can support less advanced fighters has already been demonstrated in this year’s Red Flag exercises. They pitted F-35s and their fourth-generation counterparts against 60 inbound aggressor aircraft in the skies over Arizona. Early reports from Red Flag show that even inexperienced F-35 pilots were able to offer valuable information and support to their counterparts in older planes during operations that saw heavy electronic warfare interference.

Apparently, Russia took particular offense to Goldfein’s suggestion that F-35s could operate with near impunity in Russian airspace. That would seem like a justifiable complaint, but coming from the nation that once used the state of Texas to describe how large an area its new nuclear ICBM (the RS-28 Sarmat) could destroy, it’s likely that their offense isn’t the general’s concern.


Feature photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force