Employment Considerations for 5th Generation Systems

Incorporating F-35 Capabilities into NATO-led Operations

By Captain

By Capt



, US


Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2017-2021)

 February 2021
Warfare Domains: Air Operations


When considering the complexities of modern warfare, including the targeting of military objectives in contested, congested, and rapidly shifting environments, the ability to quickly and precisely identify and counter adversarial strategies has never been more challenging. Swiftly and accurately discerning the type and affiliation of an object of interest is paramount to choosing the most advantageous tactical action. When considering the use of force, war-fighters must first ensure that the basic Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) rule of distinction is met, in that there must be a reasonable belief the object being attacked is a military target based on all information at their disposal at the time.1 In addition to this legal requirement, for policy reasons nations may specify heightened identification requirements through Rules of Engagement (ROE) necessitating Positive Identification (PID) prior to attack. While the definition of the term PID has evolved over time and among nations, in 2003 it was defined during Operation Iraqi Freedom by the coalition nations as ‘a reasonable certainty that the proposed target is a legitimate military target’.2 PID can be derived from observation and analysis of target characteristics including visual recognition, electronic signatures, non-cooperative target recognition techniques, identification friend or foe systems, or other identification techniques.3

As military technologies continue to advance at disparate levels throughout the Alliance, the potential to determine PID at tactically significant ranges and with precise geospatial coordinates has dramatically increased. So that it is possible to take full advantage of new weapons systems across the coalition force, state-of-the-art capabilities and derived intelligence must be shared throughout the fighting force. Information barriers that result from both policy and differing infrastructure between nations are certainly not a new issue within the Alliance. In fact, nothing fundamentally changes with the addition of the F-35 except that the negative effects of these information barriers are likely to be more substantial than they have been during previous generational upgrades.

This article describes how 5th generation systems have the potential to enable substantial improvements in providing more timely and accurate information, such as PID, leading to target engagement possibilities at longer ranges and with a higher operational tempo. However, since only a portion of NATO nations are employing the F-35, combined with the observation that it is highly likely the majority of NATO aircraft employing effects will not be 5th generation for the foreseeable future, the United States (US) and allied F-35 nations must make it a priority to reduce information-sharing barriers so as to field the most effective force possible.

PID Inside of ROE

In order to solve for the PID requirements detailed within the ROE, a ‘PID matrix’ is often given to tactical forces listing the combination of specific information required to meet an acceptable threshold. Since ROE are frequently local, addressing a given set of circumstances, the ‘PID matrix’ is also often unique, tailored for geopolitical issues along with assessments of adversary and friendly equipment as well as a nation’s Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs). The minimum requirements to solve for PID are provided for the purpose of abating unintended consequences (non-combatant, neutral, and friendly casualties), while enabling friendly forces to act effectively and decisively.

A typical ‘PID matrix’ includes heightened identification requirements beyond the LOAC ‘reasonable belief’ threshold to attack a target. Before electronic identification systems, distinction was often solved for visually. A lawful combatant could see the enemy wore a different uniform, wielded foreign weapons, employed enemy tactics, and potentially possessed different physical features than their own forces. In air combat, a pilot could rendezvous in a position that was obscured from an opposing aircraft’s sensors (including the pilot’s field of view) and determine the nationality of the aircraft prior to engaging. In some situations, Point of Origin (POO) was also used. Based on the commander’s understanding of the battlespace, orders were given directing lethal force be used on all forces meeting specific criteria, such as originating from a particular direction or located in a specific area (with other caveats, as required).

Using electronic systems to identify an object of interest began in the early stages of World War II with the development of the radar. National initiatives such as Project Cadillac, conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, created the first airborne radar and subsequent Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft.4 Electronic capabilities continued to progress during the Cold War and the modern concept of Electronic Identification (EID), as it contributes to meeting the requirements of distinction, was employed during the Vietnam war by US aircraft with radar warning receivers able to identify ground-based targeting radars and provide some situational awareness regarding the location and type of air defences being employed.5 With each new generation of weapons systems, the ability to electronically identify and provide the location of an object of interest has improved.

Using EID to Solve for PID

EID can be determined autonomously or manually, depending on approved ROE. When made autonomously, a computer system determines a target’s identity-based on algorithms resident in the software, programmed by the manufacturer, or in some cases, by the tactical system operator. EID can also be accomplished manually by the tactical operator deciphering system-generated identification information from single or multiple sources and comparing this information with the ‘PID matrix’ to determine the identification of the object of interest. In other words, manual EID occurs by a human processing pieces of computer-generated data to determine intelligence. During autonomous EID, the computer system analyses the data and provides the intelligence directly to the operator.

As with any method used to determine the identification of an object, an EID will have a related level of confidence that the identification is correct, based on the technical details of the systems used to obtain the EID. The confidence level of an EID obtained from a single source, or through combinations of multiple sources, is considered to determine when the threshold for PID is met. Although the PID matrix will list many other considerations that aren’t associated with EID to determine PID, there are situations where the confidence level of an EID is so high that it can be the sole source used to establish PID.

With each generational upgrade, the ability of military aircraft to provide EID has become more robust in terms of effectiveness, reliability, and automation. 5th generation systems are able to fuse multispectral signatures of objects of interest, greatly increasing the confidence level of an EID and also providing autonomous EID, minimizing operator workload. This higher quality EID has the potential to assign ‘hostile’ declarations to objects that friendly forces previously were unable to PID. This capability has the potential to dramatically improve coalition effectiveness and considerably increase the speed of the kill chain. However, there are obstacles that could limit these improvements.

For most state-of-the-art weapons, the details of the capabilities and actual confidence levels of EIDs are held nationally to safeguard them from competitors and potential adversaries. Since the F-35 has been an international programme from the start, the ability to share aircraft capabilities are similarly held,6 whereby during future coalition operations comprised of both partner and non-partner F-35 nations, many tactically-important details such as EID capabilities of the F-35 may be restricted from being shared.

Intelligence Exchange Enables Effectiveness

During the execution phase of an operational plan, it is paramount that tactical units remain flexible so that they can be reassigned as the scenario develops. The operational-level joint targeting process links strategic-level direction with tactical-level execution. During the targeting process, air assets available to the operational commander for tasking are assigned missions based on their capabilities conducive to creating synchronized effects. Time-Sensitive Targets (TSTs) and targets developed through the Deliberate Dynamic Targeting (DDT) process, including TSTs, High Value Targets (HVT), and High Payoff Targets (HPOT) can be fleeting and require a flexible approach where resources may need to be reassigned and missions reprioritized.7 Responsibility for the result of delivered effects lies at all levels in the chain-of-command, from the staff on the operations floor to the airman employing the effects. Each level must ensure the engagement is valid as defined by ROE and LOAC, based on the facts available to them and those facts that they should have reasonably obtained.8

In 2011, during NATO-led Operation Unified Protector (OUP), senior national liaison officers in the Combined Forces Air Component Command (CFACC) performed the role of national ‘red-card holders’, an element of NATO doctrine used to resolve areas in which consensus does not exist for issues on a specific mission. ‘Red-card holders’ ensure the missions their national assets undertake meet their internal policies, and possess the authority to veto the use of their national assets if they are not convinced the operation complies with these policies.9 During OUP, DDT was adopted as a means of responding to urgent tactical targets. Shown to be highly effective, one United Kingdom representative reported that by the end of the campaign, over 80% of the targets were DDT’s.10 However, the problem of intelligence sharing among coalition partners remained throughout the conflict. For instance, US-produced target folders and intelligence products were initially not releasable to NATO due to national classifications. Air Tasking Orders (ATOs) had to be tailored in an effort to assign coalition assets missions based on national policies combined with the ability to share intelligence within the coalition.11 These restraints undoubtedly put limitations on the use of certain national assets which led to an overall reduction in coalition effectiveness and reduction in flexibility.

In addition to causing complications for target engagement (as shown in OUP), the sharing of intelligence is also required during the assessment phase of the joint targeting cycle. Especially when considering TST and/or HVT/HPOT, information from all sources must be quickly collected and analysed to determine if re-engagement is required and the target is still accessible.12 Intelligence generated from all sources, including 5th generation systems, will be needed by ‘red-card holders’ from nations that have committed assets. Requests such as, ‘show me how you know the system is still operating’ or, ‘how are you coming up with this updated location’ are likely to occur and without information-sharing, ‘red-card holders’ will be forced to restrict the use of their assets and opportunities for tactical or strategic successes may be lost.


To address the intelligence and information barriers related to the employment of 5th generation aircraft, the following steps should be considered:

  1. National leaders advocate for information and data sharing between and among all NATO nations, with the appropriate level of detail to facilitate force packaging and common desired effects. The goal is to be able to share mission-specific and relevant information that enables interoperability and military cooperation. As early as possible in the acquisition process for future and current European F-35 programmes, holistic intelligence policies and requirements enabling this type of critical information-sharing should be established and refined, as necessary.
  2. Enhance the understanding of 5th generation fighter capabilities with NATO planners. NATO should ensure 5th generation operators actively participate in operational planning and exercises, facilitating discussions at the appropriate security classification level to mitigate risk of erroneous conclusions being made by the training audience based on incomplete or incorrect information.
  3. Refine/create a procedure to quickly approve data sharing for future coalitions. The F-35 partner nations, with the US in the lead, should establish and practice the steps required to share information with coalition partners to ensure that it can be done in a timely manner, at the speed of relevance. Establishing a policy where F-35 derived intelligence is sharable among a coalition is absolutely required for the aircraft to become the force multiplier it has the potential to be.

As an added benefit, effort given to more inclusive intelligence policies may provide nations an opportunity to proactively reduce national caveats. Although these political and legal variances will remain to some degree, they add complexity to operational plans and limit flexibility during execution. Especially when considering the case of a peer adversary, clear and consistent ROE throughout the coalition will go a long way to achieving the full potential of the declared forces. With renewed emphasis being given to joint, effects-based operations through emerging concepts such as Close Joint Support (CJS)13 and Joint All Domain Operations (JADO)14 , solving information-sharing and classification issues will continue to be paramount in order to fully synchronize the combined capabilities and efforts of NATO militaries.

Protocols Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 Aug. 1949, Part IV Civilian Population. Available online: https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/icrc_002_0321.pdf.
Operational Law Handbook, 2015, Chapter 5: RULES OF ENGAGEMENT, Armed Conflict: OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM: CLFCC ROE Card, pp. 109. Available online: https://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/Military_Law/pdf/OLH_2015_Ch5.pdf. Accessed 28 Jul. 2020.
Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Publication 1-02, Nov. 2010, Amended Feb. 2016, p. 187.
See http://steeljawscribe.com/2010/10/06/project-cadillac-the-beginning-of-aew-in-the-us-navy for more information.
See https://www.airspacemag.com/military-aviation/missile-men-north-vietnam-180953375/?page=2 for more information.
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) Program, Congressional Research Service, 27 May 2020.
AJP-3.9, Allied Joint Doctrine for Joint Targeting, Edition A, Version 1, Apr. 2016: para. 0103, 0104, 0108, 0109, 0110, 0208.
AJP-3.9, Allied Joint Doctrine for Joint Targeting, Edition A, Version 1, Apr. 2016: para. 0121b.
Mueller, K., et al., ‘Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War’, RAND Corporation, 2015, p. 143.
Ibid., p. 176.
Ibid., p. 143–151.
AJP-3.9, Allied Joint Doctrine for Joint Targeting, Edition A, Version 1, Apr. 2016: para. 0208g.
Cochran, D., et al., ‘Reshaping Close Support, Transitioning from Close Air Support to Close Joint Support’, JAPCC, Jun. 2020.
Air Force Role in Joint All-Domain Operations, Curtis E. Lemay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, 1 Jun. 2020.
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Joint Air Power Competence Centre (2017-2021)

Captain Daniel D. Cochran graduated in 1998 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a Bachelor’s Degree in Materials Science and Engineering. He was designated a United States Naval Aviator in 2001. He is a distinguished graduate from the Air Force Institute of Technology earning a Master’s of Science in Aeronautical Engineering. A graduate of the United States Naval Test Pilot School, he has completed tours as a test pilot and instructor. In the fleet, CAPT Cochran has completed 14 aircraft carrier deployments while assigned to F/A-18E and F/A-18C squadrons. During his most recent tour, he commanded the ‘Royal Maces’ of VFA-27, attached to CVW-5, homeported in Atsugi, Japan. He has accumulated over 3,200 flight hours in 32 aircraft, including 760 carrier-arrested landings. He is currently serving as the Maritime Air Section Head at the Joint Air Power Competence Centre.

Information provided is current as of July 2021

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