Fifth Generation Aircraft and 3 Dimensional Warfare

Part of the High-High Mix but operational over the spectrum of operations, the combat systems enterprise of the F-35 is a game changer. (Credit: Lockheed Martin Photo)

Or, How to Build the Honeycomb

07/19/2011 – The F-22 and F-35 have sophisticated sensors and self defense capabilities, which, in and of themselves, when combined with stealth enable these aircraft to become true game changers.  But in and of themselves is not where the real game changing capability comes into play.  Networking the aircraft is essential to shaping the new distributed air operations con-ops.  Through networking, the U.S. can create a honeycomb with distributed decision makers able to shape a chaos generating strike capability that is predicated on the unique environment that is ever changing from one mission to the next.

With a solid communications structure, the 5th generation aircraft can function as a honeycomb which allows them to follow a distributed air con-ops.  This allows them to become a roving motorcycle gang able to operate in three-dimensional space. (Credit: Bigstock)With a solid communications structure, the 5th generation aircraft can function as a honeycomb which allows them to follow a distributed air con-ops.  This allows them to become a roving motorcycle gang able to operate in three-dimensional space. (Credit: Bigstock)

The current USAF’s leadership unwillingness to put the MADL communications system into the F-22 makes absolutely no sense, and indeed represents a strategic refusal to leverage the capabilities of the aircraft.

The role of systems such as MADL was underscored in a recent discussion with a former senior USAF officer involved in the F-22 program. The former senior USAF officer referred to the opportunity to shape the 5th generation aircraft wolf pack as a “roving motorcycle gang.”

Q: Could you explain the significance of C2 modernization for the Fifth Generation Aircraft and for the transformation of air power?

Former Senior USAF Officer: When I was with the F-22 program, we were questioned on why would one spend serious money on C2 and C4ISR efforts associated with leveraging these 5th generation aircraft.  If it can do anti-access in three days, then do I need to spend money on these LO communications systems?

Of course if you can’t communicate, it isn’t going to be three days.

Without collaboration you can’t kick down the door quickly.  Also, the further you penetrate in, the less useful are our traditional triad of ISR platforms in the rear.  This is true whether it’s from simple range equations or the difficulty traditional ISR platforms have finding things on the ground that far out due to terrain, graze angles, and the surface environment.  This is true whether it’s radar or a passive sensor.

And that’s the heart of the envelope of why we have 5th Generation aircraft, namely to kick down the door to open the environment up to where it is feasible to bring in the rest of our forces.  We need to find those doubles digit SAMs and hit those center of gravity targets.  They’re not 50 miles across the traditional ISR FEBA (Forward Edge of the Battle Area) if indeed there is a FEBA that even exists anymore.   Unfortunately, I think people lost the idea that there is some semblance of a FEBA with any environment that requires an “operation” or we wouldn’t need military force. .

And some seem to think that air operations are really manning no-fly zones, whether it’s Libya, or what we did over at Iraq for 10 to 12 years, and what we’ve done in Afghanistan.  Those aren’t the hard challenges for air power.

Q: Why do you need low observable communications to make the 5th generation aircraft effective in their core missions?

Former Senior USAF Officer: One has to realize that anti-access denial can occur in even no-fly zone operations. For example, what we did over in OPEERATION SOUTHERN WATCH (OSW) and NORTHERN WATCH (ONW) in Iraq for the 10 years, we had areas that we didn’t fly because of heavy Iraqi fielding of Surface to Air Missile systems (SAMS) such as SA-2s and 3s.

You had circles all around the country where we could not fly because if you had a SAM site, you can’t over fly except under special conditions with special mixes of forces. The enemy can do “SAM bushes” and are able to manipulate your freedom of movement, and your tactics throughout what we call the contested region.

The Iraqis really restricted our ability to maneuver through the battle space. Once they do that, they can hide things.  They created areas they can have their own freedom to maneuver and they are in the drivers seat.  The 5th gen platforms bring freedom to maneuver throughout the battlespace.

U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors fly in formation during a training mission, Dec. 6, 2009. (Credit: USAF)
U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors fly in formation during a training mission, Dec. 6, 2009. (Credit: USAF)

It’s not just that there’s some mythical future peer competitor that is the problem. You have anti-access wherever you operate, unless you’re fighting against machine guns that are shooting in the sky.


With the F35, F22 you have the ability to execute offensive tactics wherever they want.  They don’t have restrictions. Whoever you are arrayed against, has a much more challenging problem of defense.  Whereas without 5th generation aircraft, they know exactly where we’re coming from most of the time.

In the old days, you used many aircraft in a sequence of activities.  You have your jammers.  You sit there pushed a whole through utilizing supporting assets such as EA-6Bs and Wild Weasel aircraft.

And with the whole opened up (frequently only a temporary measure) you tried to shove your force through, do your damage and then come back out.  That’s the Cold War way and remains dominate today mindset driving our tactics in the contested regions today.

As the adversary adapts more sophisticated threat laydowns and tactical deception techniques our legacy forces become more susceptible to being surprised and becoming victim in some sort of a SAMbush or other counter-air activity

Overtime we have migrated to primarily medium altitude tactics to mitigate some of that counter-air threat such as the AAA and short range SAMS but our legacy forces remain susceptible due to threats such a s passive sensors searching for their large radar cross sections or their detectable signals transmissions.  The use of Low Observable communications is a natural complementary capability for our Low observable aircraft.

Even in Libya we still had large areas that were defendable by the Libyan military heavily restricting our ability to maneuver with true air dominance; we had to take the SA-5s and other SAMs down before we could ever bring in our A-10s to go after the tanks pressing quickly toward Benghazi. If you go in with the Link 16 or you go in relying on voice coms on your 5th generation aircraft, it is like turning on big light bulb with the enemy able to see me now no matter where you are.  So, you need to have the LO coms to gain the advantages of the 5th generation capability.  The LO coms are a natural augmentation or complementary capability that comes with the new aircraft.

Q: You have described 20th century style air combat where one deploys a sequential force against adversaries putting defenses up, mobile or fixed.  Most often, they used to be fixed.  Now they’re more mobile.  The adversary has more ability to hide and move.  With the new aircraft you are reshaping your con-ops to mix with the defense to create a Rubik’s cube.  The adversary is not sure where I am, and cannot how I will attack his defenses.  Because he can no longer disrupt a sequential flow of operations, he now has to face simultaneous operations, which is Omni-directional.

I can actually shape, almost on the fly, some tactics and strategies that are very, very, very different.

Former Senior USAF Officer: Yes.  When you look at the F22 and the way they’ve changed operations, you have a good sense of the shift.  When they first started flying, they found that they were moving further and further apart from each other. Historically, you had your Flight leader and two wingmen to provide support.  Your number two primary role was to provide visual support so no one shot you from behind while number one was leading the offensive.

Now with the 360-degree sensor coverage that comes from both better onboard sensors and the ability of the 5th gen platforms to share sensor data amongst them providing advanced situational awareness, you’re not tethered to traditional tactics. Instead of two airplanes filling one piece of the sky, I only need one; and that plane’s covering a bigger piece of the sky.  And now I can have my wingmen and other flight elements further out extending the friendly presence in the battlespace while simultaneously restricting the enemy’s use of the same.  By moving independently we can be much more flexible than before.

For C2 you obviously need to know where your planes are; you need awareness of where your own forces are operating.  You need a common operational picture (COP), which is given both by what you can see from deeply penetrating an adversaries battlespace as well as what can communicated to the point of spear within that battlespace.

And you will adjust what you do with the COP. Your common operational picture may or may not include enemy tank forces.  If your only mission is to get rid of SAMs today, you don’t really care and you can take those off your scope.

But the next day, your mission may be a Libya mission where you’re out there and supposed to be finding the tanks.  You need the ability to put those on your scope. You need to be able to communicate where all these things are because you don’t know ahead of time what your mission is going to be.  The networks need to be able to connect the disparate platforms and provide the right information at the right time to the users that need it.

Part of the High-High Mix but operational over the spectrum of operations, the combat systems enterprise of the F-35 is a game changer. (Credit: Lockheed Martin Photo)Part of the High-High Mix but operational over the spectrum of operations, the combat systems enterprise of the F-35 is a game changer. (Credit: Lockheed Martin Photo)

This roving motorcycle gang, as it’s been called sometime, is essentially the freedom to maneuver.  It allows the human brain to look at what’s on the scope and provide dynamic direction.   The more SA you have concerning where your own forces are located and what their capabilities are, and the more you sense and can figure out what the enemy force is doing, then you can better take the optimal path of attack. This approach can be contrasted with the legacy-preplanned mindset where we determine in advance our tactics and targets. It is more of a flow and shaping of tactics against the reality of the evolving battlespace environment and enhancing your ability to complicate the adversaries approach to defense.

Q:  This fleet operating in a distributed operations environment or operating like a roving motorcycle gang also means that your force is much harder to defeat.  The adversary can’t know in advance with complete certainty how the Blue team is going to attack or what they’re going to attack.

Former Senior USAF Officer: The fifth gen isn’t just about stealth obviously; it is also about information dominance.  These two capabilities allow the 5th gen assets the ability to freely move.  And you can freely move because you know where everyone is as much as possible. CNI is a critical part of this operational capability. CNI is not just a bunch of federated radios that do one single function.

Q: What does CNI stand for?

Former Senior USAF Officer: CNI is Communication Navigation Identification.

Q: This allows the stealth aircraft to identify one another?

Former Senior USAF Officer: It’s a digital sweep, which takes care of your communication and IFF needs and navigation so that they’re integrated. The stealth airplane wants to limit its exposure for radar cross section (RCS) and signal emanations. You don’t want to have all kinds of antennas that might make you more detectable.

Q: This is not only a technology change but also a cultural change.  Do you push back from the services?

Former Senior USAF Officer: When I was with the Air Force, and we went up to the JROC and the Army 3-star said, “but how are you going to talk to my soldier on the ground?”  Well, which unit on the ground?  If you go to the Army, you can find, depending on which unit you’re on, you have any number of different radios that we would need to field on every F22 or F35 to talk to that particular soldier.  And then I go to the Marines and my coalition partners and find they have different radios and waveforms.  So, you can’t have a separate radio for everybody, or I just would need a huge flying truck full of antennas and radios.

The LO airplane with all those antennas have reflectivity. You need to minimize the number of apertures you have.  You can’t talk to everyone.

Hence the need for a network capability.  The network solution is the logical solution, and even the Army themselves are going down this path. FCS was an attempt at that, and it fell apart.  But they’re rebuilding it.  Their COM networks are being developed realizing they have disparate networks and there is an inherent need for gateways to facilitate the ability to communicate together.  This network is growing to include smart phones on the field as well as a large variety of handheld radios, C2 node radios, and vehicle radios.  They all need to communication together.  So they’re building a network in order to provide a seamless communication no matter units you have in the field and what particular hardware you have.

The Air Force, in reality, hasn’t grasped that as well.  They’re not as far along in doing that.  The initial fielding of Gateways in the AF connected the Link 16 and SADL networks but although operationally desirable there has been great resistance for any platform to take on this Gateway role.  The AF has now fielded a livery small amount of gateways yet only under pressure to support support Army connectivity.  They are now heavily involved in helping design the JALN, the Joint Aerial Layer Network, that will architect some of that.  But we haven’t really invested much.  We’re still primarily link 16 players, and if you’re not on link 16, you’re not part of the net. With the LO airplanes, its not really a feasible network to be on due to characteristics that are counter to stealth practices.  Additionally being typically further forward in the battlefield it is more susceptible to jamming.

Q: Link 16 has significant limitations.

Former Senior USAF Officer: Right.  And it’s already full and limited. We need to go to the next gen. The question is what kind of networks do you want to do?  Well, you have to have a protected COM or guaranteed COM like MADL and IFDL on the F22.   These are directional networks, they’re hard to jam and they’re hard to detect so they fit that protected case.

And you have to bridge that data back to the fourth gen airplane or the legacy forces to include command and control in the rear.  You are going to want a network because you don’t know what radio/waveform the aircraft behind you or above you or what surface ship that you may be flying over is communicating on.

In the end you’re going to need to be able to network.  In the end we want to have seamless end-to-end communications from the data producers to the consumers regardless of the equipment differences. This information flow needs to be agnostic to waveforms and hardware and needs to generate into more of a network just like you can talk between a Mac and PC.   The focus should be on enabling this data/information flow rather than a single link or set of hardware, if we are instituting common data standards and taking advantage of gateways and smart routing you really shouldn’t care.

Q: And that was one of the goals of AMFJTRS, of course.

Former Senior USAF Officer: JTRS has started that.  Unfortunately, the whole program cost so much money and they backed off and started to focus on very small parts.  And so a lot of the Internet working parts are been deferred or are slower coming along.

But those benefits put the cost into perspective of the radios and the cost of putting those new waveforms into play.

Q: There are really two issues here.  One is how the fifth generation aircraft find and work together in is this kind of wolf pack or roving motorcycle gang, and they then can communicate what they know back to other air assets and/or to ground assets.  Presumably, you can put this into an airborne router, in effect, that could actually do some of this translation.  You don’t have to have it done on the fifth generation aircraft itself.

Former Senior USAF Officer: You are correct. We’ve done a demo of the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node or BACN as a means of dealing with the second issue, which you mentioned. It was demo’d in the JEFX and it takes in and it listens to IFDL.  And it can take that data and translate it into link 16 and rebroadcast it out or they send it down to C2.  Due to Link 16 bandwidth and security limitations only a limited set of this data gets republished however it can all be routed to the appropriate C4ISR customer who can consume it all.  With the greatly increased bandwidth for MADL we really need some type of track correlation function on the gateway to handle moving the large volume of track data and the associated security issues.

The whole point of a router in the sky raises the question of how far you want to go with your networking. Security becomes the first barrier. With an airplane like an F22, which has a number of classified capabilities, you can’t just send it to a router that can then just send that data to everybody. You have to be able to figure out who’s authorized to see what data or figure out what can be downgraded and then republished so the people get the important information that they need.

There’s a number of ways to tackle that problem.  But none of them are funded to field today. There are only two government-owned BACN platforms fielded today and they do not have the ability to intercept and translate the IFDL or MADL data links from the 5th gen aircraft.

There are challenges to solve to make it more operational, and useful. One of the concerns is what they call the tether range, how far from the gateway can you be and communicate, and do you bring this gateway up close to the battle space with you because you have a range limit? Eventually you would like to either have a penetrating type of gateway or a relay bridge, a COM relay node.  There are other proposals out there to put them on a fourth gen type fighter. Obviously an F-15 can get a lot closer than a BACN payload on a business jet like being used in Afghanistan today.

Another game-changing capability of the 5th generation aircraft is the platform's ability to function within a wolf pack, utilizing all of the deployed assets for control of 360 degree space.  (Credit: Bigstock)
Another game-changing capability of the 5th generation aircraft is the platform's ability to function within a wolf pack, utilizing all of the deployed assets for control of 360 degree space. (Credit: Bigstock)

A Fighter could move forward a lot better than say a predator, because a predator can’t turn around and run away if required.  A Predator can only go so far forward in the contested region and unable to penetrate the anti-access area. Satellite Communications are often thrown out as the obvious solution however the expense of outfitting each of these platforms is large and the availability of the required channels to support all this data flow is not there.  One goal is to provide some sort of SATCOM gateway capability on some number of these penetrating assets to cover those cases where a Line of Sight “tether” is not feasible.


Q: The enablement of distributed operations obviously requires the LO COMS which you are describing to enable the roving motorcycle gang.  At the same time, I have to craft capability to communicate back to the legacy fleet to make better use of them as bomb trucks or whatever.  I need the LO COMS to operate as a honeycomb; and I need COMs tools to send back whatever data, I need to leverage other air, ground or naval assets.

It’s no longer air battle management I’m looking for.  I’m looking for force structure management.  Force enablement by taking whatever my forward deployed assets can generate and distribute them to the fleet.  Because then I can get full value out of F-22s and F-35s and I can now task them to do certain things necessary for the ground forces or the surface fleet or whatever. But none of this happens if I don’t do what we’re not doing, which is I’m not funding the ability of this roving motorcycle gang to actually act like a roving motorcycle gang.  If I don’t do that, I’ve created very expensive bookends.

Former Senior USAF Officer: Right. Today what we do, when we go out and we fly with the B2, it tends to be more procedural and very traditional, and we know where they are. You are forced to live with the goals that were determined at planning time. And if the conditions change, well then your plan falls apart.

Fortunately, there’s few enough numbers today that it’s a thing that a guy in a cockpit can manage to a certain extent.  But as you bring in more Blue LO airframes and the enemy starts bringing in LO platforms, all of a sudden I have other numerous LO platforms (Blue and Red) that need to be identified.

It’s one thing to have birds on your radar that may be or may not an LO player.  If it might be an enemy, I really have to know.  Your risk of fratricide is going up because you’re bringing in more LO players, but not giving us the capability to communicate across the motorcycle gang the awareness of whom the blue and red forces are.

The F35 has some very good sensors such as DAS and some classified capabilities so that one person may have a better chance of ID’ing a person as a hostile but you need to be able to communicate and pass that critical data.  When information is known the quickest and cheapest way for another platform to get the same important information is to have it communicated to him. We don’t want every platform in the battlespace taking the time to figure out where and what every other entity in the Battelspace is.

With regard to C2, you need a robust capability to share among the “gang” their knowledge. During the fight, the knowledge basis continues to grow and grow.  And so how do you feed information both ways between the people who are operating forward and those who are not. You need to have that fifth gen and legacy force connectivity for C2 and to capture key information about fixing signals and entities across the battlespace.

Quote from Senior USAF General: "Why would anyone re-engine the AWACS with the 5th generation aircraft coming on stream?" (Credit: from Senior USAF General: “Why would anyone re-engine the AWACS with the 5th generation aircraft coming on stream?” (Credit:

That’s one of the issues with AWACs. If I can’t even see where the LO aircraft are then how can there be effective C2? I don’t know whom to pair against what threats when I can’t see my own friendly forces.  How do I know who’s in best position to manage which challenge?  The simplest of command & control breaks down when you don’t know where your own assets are.  You can’t see them and our own layered defense plans fall apart when our Aegis and Patriots don’t know where or who the friends are.

Q: If you’re an F22 pilot and you’re an F35 pilot, and we know that’s the situation the AWACs is in, I’m not going to listen to him.

Former Senior USAF Officer: The quality of air tracks started exceeding the AWAC sensor’s ability years ago. With the 360 degree shared sensor picture of the F-22 and F-35 flights it is more a question of how much they really should be listening to C2.  It’s good when you’re cold in the cap or hanging on the tanker but as soon as you get close to the fight, your radars and other sensors are of such a higher fidelity, that what you’re seeing is much more of a reality than the picture that AWACs is pushing.  So, you start de-tuning this command of control, so that you can’t really argue that it’s command and control if there not listening to you because they are making their own decisions based on having a higher fidelity picture of both the enemy and friendly forces.

What this tells me is that my most valuable resources are not the legacy.  It’s the new stuff.  But I’m not investing in the new stuff to enable them to begin changes.  My concern is that if we don’t get the point that this is a whole different game, we have already given up quantity for quality and you need to stay far ahead in that game well before the other guys make the investments to catch up.

Q: And the fluidity of the battlespace plays to the capabilities of the 5th generation aircraft and the new con-ops we are discussing.  I can deal with fluidity by ingesting chaos into the adversary’s OODA loop.

Former Senior USAF Officer: The sensors that are forward on the fifth gen are the key to new con-ops. They help feed any of the rear fights that I might have, including any of the cyber fights.

One of the things about the fifth gen sensors, to include the CNI, because they have a set amount of apertures they try and take as much use of those as possible, that’s really the big advantage, the big leap forward.  And so it’s not so much that it’s necessarily COM, it’s really the digital age.  I can connect receivers to these apertures and I can do multiple things.

The Fifth Gen sensors are software defined. I can use this aperture to do IFF things, and then I can use the same aperture for landing, during landing phase. I can use it to sit there and sense and listen to enemy coms if I want to.  More importantly we can take the results of our multiple sensors across multiple platforms to build a very high fidelity coherent picture of the battlespace.

Q: And the mobility of the defensives systems poses increasingly targeting challenges as well.

Former Senior USAF Officer: You’re going to have to develop your own targets because these things are mobile and are going to be up a short time.  So, whenever you see them, you’re going to have to be able to, amongst yourself, deal with them.  If you don’t deal with them and find them now, well it will be moved and that intel has limited value when you record it and bring it back.  It’s not going to be there the next day.  I can’t schedule a mission on that intel.

Q: Could you discuss the challenge of working the common data stream?

Former Senior USAF Officer: The ability to move the data means you need to be able to migrate it to the consumer who can best use it.  And that doesn’t mean you need to talk to him directly.  In most cases, that would be cost prohibitive and a waste of investment.

Generically we need to grow more standardized data.  The ISR world has done that well.  They have a thing called the JICD, which is the Joint Interface Control Document, which they’ve defined how to discuss parameters.  Whether you’re doing jamming or ISR, or whatever you’re doing with the EW signal, there’s a standard and I can relay that.  You can do multiple things with the same piece of data.

I collect a signal and then multiple users can use it for their applications or for whatever they want to use it.  It doesn’t mean that there’s a single network that runs it all.  If someone has the ability to data mine a network, they can harvest the available sensor data for their own uses. As you expand the amount of routers around the Battlespace to cross at those network Venn diagram crossovers, there should be sufficient routers that let information freely flow back and forth regardless of the disparate networks.

As you connect more circles, the routers keep extending and the network grows and grows.  But you don’t need to keep making this guy directly connect to anybody in any of the other circles just as our ground Internet infrastructure connects computers and phones via a honeycomb of copper, fiber and wireless links.

Q: In many ways the challenge is confusion between the aircraft as a platform and an aircraft as a system shaping new con-ops.  The fifth generation aircraft have amazing self-defense capabilities associated with advanced sensors, etc. But the networking of the aircraft, or in our terms, crafting a honeycomb of distributed aircraft requires an investment in communications and related capabilities.  Having the one without the other will not allow the new con-ops to emerge and ability for the U.S. to ensure its ability to ensure air dominance in the period ahead.

Former Senior USAF Officer: The F-22s are custom mechanized today to do the function they were designed for.  But they will be very good at doing ISR.  Very good at it, but we haven’t spent a dime to make even the COMM connections to move that data out of the advanced sensor systems over to a network that will let you move it.

We don’t have the router in the sky to get the data off that platform and out to anybody else who could consume it. I’ve been a very big advocate of building a network so you can start taking advantage of the data that already exists.  You can’t afford to put every sensor on every platform, just like you can’t put every radio on every platform.

The sensor systems are too big, too power consuming and May even have interference issues with other platform avionics.  You can’t put every one on every airplane and it’s too unaffordable.  So, take advantage of investments you’ve made.  Connect your airplanes that you have to allow the data to move much more freely amongst them.

Q: To summarize: there are three investments that become important. First, it is necessary to complete the ability of these aircraft to talk, to work together in a wolf pack kind of concept.  Secondly, it’s your ability to build an infrastructure that’s going to allow the flow of communication between those aircraft and everything else to create that network of the future.  But rather than building the network of the future, you’re just trying to get the infrastructure, and then let a thousand apps bloom. Thirdly, is recognizing the link between the first and the second is that these are flying ISR platforms.  They are not combat aircraft.

Former Senior USAF Officer: These 5th gen platforms are certainly combat aircraft however they are much more than simply ground or air attack platforms.  For example F-22 sensors are designed to give them the operational picture they need to prosecute an offensive air-to-air attack.  That is their mission. In essence, they’re their own ISR platform in regards to finding air-to-air entities, and figuring out who they are so they can prosecute that attack.  But those same sensors can be seeing things that will help in the air to ground attack.  And they’ll help in Special Forces or in a missile defense effort.  But no one has paid to mechanize those activities or to move that data from the F-22 to those other consumers. Today when an F-22 sees most of this data, the machine does not prioritize it, communicate it, or store it, it simply throws it on the floor.  It’s gone.

The sensor saw it and collected it.  It’s just not being used. You basically have this valuable information available for users, but we can’t move it.  We haven’t mechanized the ability to get it from a sensor faceplate of the 5th gen sensor to the end user.  That end-to-end movement needs to be crafted and funded.  Instead of having dedicated Air-to-Air, ISR, Wild Weasel, and Air to Ground platforms we have these 5th gen capabilities.  In a true systems-of-systems construct they can be networked together to generate their own targets or support follow-on forces and can dynamically provide kinetic and non-kinetic force application to engage a wide spectrum of threats and targets.