The NATO Joint Air Power Competence Center Examines 5th Generation Enabled Air Power: Air Warfare in a Networked Environment

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)

2016-05-13 by Robbin Laird

During a visit to the Joint Airpower Competence Center of NATO located in Dusseldorf, Germany, specifically in Kalkar, Germany, I had a chance to discuss their important study on the evolution of air warfare capabilities in a networked environment.

The Joint Air Power Competence Center or JAPCC was formed and focused on helping NATO member nations shape more effective airpower solutions for 21st century challenges.


According to its website:

The Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) was formed on 1 January 2005 to provide the strategic level pro­­ponent for Joint Air and Space (A&S) Power that was missing in NATO. Soon thereafter, JAPCC was accredited as NATO’s first Centre of Excellence (COE) and, as such, is charged with the development of innovative concepts and solutions required for the transformation of A&S Power within the Alliance and the Nations.

 A&S Power SMEs, drawn from the Land, Maritime and Air components of the 15 MoU nations, conduct collaborative research into areas in which JAPCC assistance is requested by leveraging their independent thought and a global network of experts that reach across the military, ­aca­­demic and industrial spheres. The resulting analysis and solutions are disseminated via studies, reports, journal articles, seminars, panels and conferences.

The co-leads of the study are Lt. Col. Carlos Presa of the Spanish Air Force who is the Combat Air Branch Manned Air lead, and Commander William Perkins of the US Navy the lead analyst for maritime air including carrier operations.

The two co-leads provided an overview of this important study, which is focused on the evolution of C2 in a networked environment.

Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought among those looking at future generation-enabled air operations.

One school of thought looks at the evolution of networks within which airpower creates its effects and the coming of fifth generation is largely understood in terms of both its impact upon and role within the evolution of networks. This can be seen largely as an update on understanding of network centric warfare in the second decade of the 21st century.

The second school of thought focuses on the evolution of C2 within which fifth generation aircraft provide an impetus to an evolving trend towards decentralized C2.

The difference can be a subtle one but it is a significant one.

The first prioritizes the networks, their operations, and their security and assumes that the hub and spoke system largely continues within which hierarchical decision-making remains a norm.

The second focuses on a honeycomb approach within which force packages are shaped to work with one another but C2 evolves within the battlespace.

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 and allows the combat force to operate interactively in three-dimensional space. (Credit: Bigstock)

Tactical decisions are made at the key point of attack and defense; strategic decision making is really about the decision to deploy a force package, shaping ways for confluence of force to operate and evaluating the impacts of those force packages and calibrating next steps for the deployment of continuous evolving force engagement model.

Although the project is entitled air warfare in a networked environment, the study falls squarely in the second school of thought.

The co-evolution of platforms to shape C2 in self-adjusting networked operational environments is a key element of the approach.

In an interview, which we did with a former USAF officer who then joined Northrop Grumman the key impact of fifth generation on command and control, was highlighted in a key manner:

“You don’t want to have a fifth-generation Air Force, shackled by a third-generation system of command and control.”

He then added:

“The concept of dispersing aircraft on airfields is well understood. Rather than park them wingtip-to-wingtip, commanders might disperse them across broader geographies, so that at worst case, an adversary could take out one or two airplanes, not the entire fleet. And this idea of dispersing for survival is well accepted.

But the same kind of concept is not generally applied to command and control at the operational-level with the same level of effort.

Dispersing command and control for survival or distributing command and control in a way that one can pick up the slack is essential.

If the CAOC goes away and the Joint Force Air Component Commander is unable to C2 the forces, then, who are the subordinate commanders?

And, and what ability do they have to continue to fight in terms of operational-level command and control?

For the current fight, the tactical-level C2 elements, the air battle managers on board the AWACS for example, will continue to fight the current fight. But, what happens next?

And so, I think a wing commander in the future will have to have ability, in the same way a brigade commander does in land warfare, to exercise appropriate command and control over his forces absent the higher authority … centralized command, distributed control, decentralized execution … mission command for the air component.”

It is in this spirit that the JAPCC study is being conducted.

How will enhanced communication networks working with the co-evolution of new and legacy platforms reshape operations and mission effectiveness?

The study is based on a number of key propositions, which are guiding the research and analysis for the evolution of NATO C2.

“An advanced C2 network through unrestricted communication will permit new forms of information transfer among different platforms that display information from different sensors and employ different weapons

This will happen through:

  • self-synchronization
  • in pre-authorised sub-tasks
  • requiring a multi-functional supported-supporting toolbox

The different features or characteristics of these platforms may be combined in real-time to create more effective mission-tailored clusters.”

And this will likely result in an evolution in NATO Air C2 doctrine.

One of the elements for shaping the analyses is examining how European researchers are shaping understanding of swarm behavior or swarm intelligence.

How do swarms of bees balance and distribute their functions, configure their tasks and arrange the optimal motion policy for the swarm?

And what is the impact of swarming behavior among dissimilar species teaming when symbiotic behavior is a must in a competitive environment?

How does auto positioning and dynamic re-positioning happen with members of a swarm?

Data links have become important in shaping NATO coalition operations but with the introduction of the fifth generation multi-tasking aircraft, how will something more akin to self-adjusting cells of a honeycomb operate?

A number of key objectives have been identified for the project.


When considering the evolution of C2, a key dynamic of change is the evolving man-machine relationship and the enhanced role of machine-to-machine data transfers as well.

“Network-centric C2 and cyber warfare as a primary linking factor will dynamically reorganize the current functional distribution of Roles among aerial/joint platforms and expedite task accomplishment”.

F-35 is an example of a multi-functional platform that may act as an enabler for other legacy platforms.

Each platform has core functions. These functions are allocated for each tactical task, as well as the proper decision rights.

Task execution will become more dynamic and characterized by a flexible supported-supporting schema where the different systems contribute through data transfer to enable and augment everybody’s capabilities.

The ‘best available sensor’ and ‘best available weapon’ concepts will be allocated within the honeycomb for the different offensive and defensive stages of the fight.

Co-evolution of legacy platforms through LINK-16 is already a fact.

The JAPCC team, in close collaboration with the Tactical Leadership Programme, has analysed the pre and post LINK 16 efficiency trends within a 10-year span of TLP operations across different tactical scenarios.

But beyond LINK-16, and through gateways, like the Northrop-Grumman Freedom 550 Joint Enterprise Terminal, hyper-connectivity will create a new skeleton for decision making, force management and task execution based on data transfer while recognizing the future air forces will be comprised of aircraft with varying capabilities yet retain a requirement for robust network participation.”

The study draws upon the work of NATO researchers who have defined a maturity model for C2.

For future C2 model references, Alberts et al. proposed a Maturity Model for network-enabled operations. The scope of the SAS Panel study was to investigate how operational capability can be provided and enhanced through the exploitation of new technologies, new forms of organization or new concepts of operation.

Leveraging the Honeycomb and Swarming Capabilities Credit: Bigstock
Leveraging the Honeycomb and Swarming Capabilities Credit: Bigstock

The analogy used by the authors of this NATO NEC maturity Model is cartographic: ‘A maturity model is like a map, it helps you to determine where you are relative to where you want to go’.

 As it is uncertain the impact that the incoming networked environments will cause in the existent C2 structures, the usage of a model will be the conceptual tool that helps to locate and understand the ‘intermediate destinations’ that these evolutionary trends will meet once the information’s age warfare  changes the way to plan and conduct operations.

 The Maturity Model defines 3 Axes:

 1st Axis. Allocation of decision rights to the collective: The rules. The entities evolve from mistrust to a shared, robust and flexible decision-making process within the team by giving up their respective rights for the benefit of the endeavour as a whole. This feature is related to the strength and validity of the team’s contract and regulations.

 2nd Axis. Patterns of interaction among the entities: The will and confidence. Axis where players with different communication capabilities, skills and communicative options can reduce uncertainty in support of the team’s leader decision making.

 3rd Axis. Distribution of information among the players: Axis where the information needed to accomplish required tasks is available to each player. As the flow of relevant information within the C2 system is tangible, this axis can be considered as a direct measure of the team’s performance. A channel of communication must be available, a code compatible and messages understood without ambiguities.

 Axis number 3 would cause a quicker effect as it would be possible to connect the team through universal sounds, icons and symbols, just as young teens play online videogames worldwide, sharing the rules and the functions, but neither the country nor the language or the culture.

Shaping an understanding of the way ahead for C2 in a coalition environment is built around what the authors call a dynamic airspace synchronization concept.


Because this is a NATO study, a key focus is upon understanding how the evolution of C2 maturity will impact on the evolution of NATO’s air C2 doctrine.

And the authors argue that although “hyper-connectivity has already changed the air (joint) battle, there is not a concept for integrated-distributed ops at coalition level.”

The Director of JAPCC is General Frank Gorenc, USAF. In previous interviews he addressed interoperability through machine-to-machine interaction as part of his future Air Power vision.

Recently, he has clearly identified the significant impact of the coming of the F-35 on NATO airpower.

In an interview with Defense News published on March 16, 2016, General Gorenc identified how he sees the impact of the coming of the F-35:

“The beauty of the F-35 is for the first time ever we have an airplane that literally can do four out of five core competencies. It can do air and space superiority, it can do strike, it can do intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and it can do command and control”.

With the coming of the F-35 and the evolution of the networks within which coalition airpower operate and are changing, it makes sense to think through a broader approach to C2, notably one which can leverage the evolving man-machine relationship.

The longer-term objective is to have a more effective coalition force which can provide much more effective C2 in a fluid battlespace with maximum effect.

With the evolution of two way data-linked weapons, and of remotely piloted vehicles and the coming of the F-35, the need to both understand and shape a more effective approach to self-synchronization of platforms through a collaborative use of the joint battlespace is crucial.

And understanding how this can be done in accord with the evolution of Alliance or Coalition rules, caveats and missions is required as well.

In short, the JAPCC is taking a solid step forward in looking at the future of airpower and how that future is reshaping concepts of operations.