Fifth Generation Aircraft, Defined
For the purposes of this paper, we must define what a ‘fifth generation’ aircraft means in the context of modern military operations. A fifth generation aircraft is capable of operating effectively in highly contested combat environments, defined by the presence of the most capable current air and ground threats, and those reasonably expected to be operational in the foreseeable future. Currently fielded fifth generation aircraft include the Air Force’s F-22A Raptor and the US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II, with the USAF F-35A targeted to achieve initial operational capability later this year.
There are many characteristics of fifth generation aircraft that separate them from older aircraft. These include, primarily, multi-spectral low observable (LO) design features (such as radar, infrared sensors, and visual situational awareness tools), along with self-protection and radar jamming capabilities that delay or deny enemy systems the ability to detect, track, and engage the aircraft. These aircraft also feature integrated avionics, which autonomously fuse and prioritize the aircraft’s multi-spectral sensors and off board data, providing an accurate real-time operations picture for the pilot, and the ability to download data for post-mission analysis. This is a present-day example of ‘man-machine teaming’. Advanced on-board diagnostics help vital monitoring of the aircraft’s health, accurately reporting faults as they occur, increasing overall system performance and reliability.
Resilient communications, navigation, and identification tools and techniques are also crucial aspects of fifth generation aircraft, designed to counter enemy attempts to jam, deny, or confuse these vital capabilities. Fifth generation aircraft are also empowered by robust networks, linking individual aircraft to create a common, accurate, and highly integrated picture of the battle space for friendly forces. The aircraft and its subsystem designs are also closely integrated, far more intricately than older aircraft. This helps to maximize lethality and survivability while enabling decision-making superiority by reducing the number of actions required by the pilot. The effect of these tools in total turns operators of these advanced aircraft into mission commanders, rather than having them focus on managing and operating subsystems (like in older third and fourth generation ‘legacy’ aircraft). Despite their capability, at present fifth generation aircraft comprise a fraction of the current combat air forces. The average age of a current USAF airframe is 27 years, and rising.1 Modernizing fighter and bomber forces with sufficient numbers of fifth generation aircraft is critical for continued combat relevance, especially in light of three important trends:
- Modern Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS) have created regions where fourth generation aircraft cannot effectively penetrate and hope to survive.2
- Threat aircraft, air-to-air missiles (AAMs), electronic attack (EA), and electronic protection systems have advanced beyond the capabilities of US fourth generation fighters.3
- Fifth generation aircraft provide a wider variety of wartime options in many scenarios, preserve US technological advantage over near-peer threats, and serve as force multipliers by increasing the situational awareness and combat effectiveness of legacy aircraft.
Understanding Fifth Generation Operations
An effective capability, such as fifth generation aircraft, is only a tool and must be properly utilized with effective preparation to perform at its best and empower joint operations fully. To achieve success with any fifth generation aircraft requires all personnel associated with the generation and employment of these capabilities, to include aircrew, maintenance, and support personnel, to optimize their roles in ensuring effective combat operations.
Airmen must have an intuitive understanding of their aircraft and how it performs in relationship to the threats it might encounter.4 They must train for the most demanding scenarios against the latest IADS and enemy aircraft, and US military services, allies, and partner nations must also develop a strategy with fiscally realistic and executable plans to adequately train against advanced adversary advanced capabilities (including air-to-air, surface to air, space, and cyber threats). These plans and preparations must include an appropriate mix of live, virtual, and constructive (LVC) training scenarios and exercises. This is of added importance in the context of fifth generation aircraft, as flight simulator training is even more important than with older aircraft. To a greater extent than training with legacy aircraft, fifth generation simulators must provide realistic training through timely concurrency with the aircraft, sufficient fidelity for realism, and appropriate connectivity to other assets for realistic exercising. In addition to operators, maintenance personnel require more training to adequately keep up fifth generation aircraft and their vital low radar signatures.
To improve survivability against adversary IADS, the signatures of fifth generation aircraft must be actively managed, much like airframe inspection and engine maintenance schedules.5 Commanders must ensure that training resources are adequately provided for these assets to capitalize on the unique capabilities they bring to the operational environment. All personnel must be trained to understand the importance of specialized security requirements for fifth generation aircraft. From ensuring physical security and cyber standards to balancing protection of classified capabilities with realistic training, personnel must appreciate and carry out security guidelines for daily operations effectively, as well as those for allied, coalition, and partner training exercises and combat operations. Lastly, commanders and support personnel must understand the fifth generation aircraft global sustainment system, for both home station and during deployed operations. Commanders should consider and actively track changing threat conditions, and how these can impact the ability to sustain their fifth generation operations.
Fifth Generation Airpower and Data
Fifth generation aircraft bring incredible capability into combat. But they are also some of the most data-dependent machines in the US inventory, and require significant amounts of information in order to operate at their best.
Fifth generation aircrew and aircraft rely on mission data files to enable on-board systems to accurately identify friendly, neutral, and adversary systems. This data allows fifth generation pilots to enhance their stealth, or low observable (LO) signature management, enabling the aircraft to survive and maintain situational awareness of events in combat even when operating in close proximity to advanced threats. The US Air Force, sister services, allies, and the intelligence community have an essential role in populating and updating these files. Not only is this mission data necessary for internal operation of these aircraft, this data also contains the capability for fifth generation systems to communicate their fused sensor products off board to other aircraft, providing an integrated common operating picture of a conflict or contingency. In the future, near-real time exploitation of fifth generation aircraft’s unique information collection capabilities will become increasingly mandatory to operate in more sophisticated threat environments.
To achieve true combat systems integration, this fused sensor information must be linked up with USAF’s much larger legacy aircraft forces and select command and control nodes via data links and cloud-based communication architectures. By linking this information to the entire force, an actionable common operating and targeting picture can be created for commanders and decision makers. As sensors, communication protocols, and data links improve, all friendly forces should be able to share the multi-domain situational awareness fifth generation aircraft can generate, in cooperation with other assets. To perform this effectively, though, requires a detailed systems understanding of data link architectures, and protocols to ensure communication compatibility across the enterprise.
Deploying and Sustaining Fifth Generation Airpower
Squadrons of fifth generation aircraft deploy today extensively, much like fourth generation units that preceded them (aircraft such as F-16s, F-15s, and others). But to realize the potential of fifth generation aircraft in modern joint operations, fifth generation communities in the USAF must make several improvements.
First, units must improve deployment reaction time and speed, as windows of opportunity to penetrate IADS or to destroy high value targets may be fleeting. Second, fifth generation aircraft units must work diligently to minimize the required amount of forward-deployed equipment and personnel, and fully understand the logistics, sustainment, and communications limitations at a deployed location. Third, the Air Force must work to increase flexible basing options available for fifth generation aircraft (such as increasing the number of airfields the Air Force can deploy to), and build a fuller understanding of the impact these options will have on operations, maintenance, and command and control in dispersed locations.
This includes not only conducting combat operations from bases owned by our international partners, but also operating at relatively austere locations. Deploying and operating from limited support locations does come with some challenges. The US and its allies must ensure support (logistics and connectivity) can be delivered to forward airfields where commercial carriers may not operate. Finally, fifth generation aircraft sustainment and support systems must be hardened with sufficient redundancy to ensure resilience under attack. This hardening must be multi-domain, and the sustainment and support systems must be able to survive and operate in the face of both kinetic and cyber attack.
Successful Employment and Sustainment Across the Spectrum
Combat employment of air assets may occur across a wide spectrum of potential conflicts, from permissive environments, where legacy and fifth generation aircraft can operate together with ease, to highly contested environments, where only fifth generation aircraft can operate effectively. In permissive or moderately contested environments, the force packaging of airpower can combine both legacy and fifth generation aircraft to maximize survivability, and the lethality of the force. Since legacy aircraft sensors alone may be insufficient to detect threats, or may be overwhelmed by the quantity of threats, fifth generation aircraft may provide the most utility by sharing their fused operations picture via a well-constructed data link feeding this information into the communications architecture, which disperses this picture to as many legacy aircraft as possible.
Likewise, legacy aircraft increase a force’s ordnance capacity due to the limited internal carriage configurations of fifth generation aircraft. Modern fifth generation aircraft can offer targeting solutions for fourth generation assets via established data links, while themselves targeting threats only by exception. This gives commanders an incredible amount of operational flexibility. In highly contested environments, an air component commander might use only fifth generation aircraft to bypass an IADS and neutralize the objective. Alternatively, fifth generation aircraft can destroy or degrade enemy defences to create a temporary or localized permissive (or semi-permissive) environment where legacy aircraft can operate with relative freedom of action. This often requires fifth generation aircraft to operate on the leading edge of the force package, allowing legacy aircraft to ingress and destroy priority targets.
Once combat begins, however, adversaries may adjust tactics, as well as the operating parameters of their systems. Thus, leaders will need to ensure that appropriate intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets report this information quickly to the mission data enterprise supporting fifth generation aircraft and other elements of joint force operations. There must be a robust processing exploitation dissemination (PED)-like process for analysing the data fifth generation aircraft collect. Commanders need to proactively ensure operations data is linked properly with the intelligence enterprise. This linkage will allow for the proper analysis of information, and more importantly, the proper application of learned information. This kind of seamless information sharing must be achieved to enable rapid reprogramming and re-release of mission data files for optimum employment of all allied assets.
In order to make this employment concept a reality, collaboration is critical. USAF units must be able to share lessons with other US military services and, as required, select allied and coalition partners. Sharing with international partners while balancing security concerns will be paramount to successful future fifth generation aircraft employment. Joint and combined training, exercises, and even ‘cross talks’ at forums like tactics conferences and training review boards will also be critical learning and development opportunities. In addition, it is necessary to ensure fifth generation pilots, as well as maintenance and logistics personnel, fill key billets on major command, headquarters, and joint staff positions to inform senior leaders, and enable appropriate enterprise-wide resource planning and decision making.
Maintenance of fifth generation aircraft also requires careful planning to keep the force ready for combat operations. While fifth generation aircraft require the same maintenance considerations as legacy aircraft, such as maintaining flight systems and engines, there are additional requirements to maintain their low observable (LO) characteristics. This adds another level of complexity USAF leadership must proactively manage. The Air Force must understand how the logistics enterprise can support the unique capabilities of fifth generation aircraft both in garrison and during deployed operations. While deployed, leaders and commanders must understand how to leverage in-theatre fifth generation assets, along with sister US military service or partner nation logistics networks. When the answers to these sustainment challenges are discovered, they should be analysed rapidly with respect to the changing phases of a given campaign, training exercise, or other engagement involving fifth generation aircraft.
Conclusion: Employing Our Advantage for Joint and Combined Force Operations
Employing these aircraft in future combat requires careful attention across several phases and aspects of employment beyond the aircraft themselves. These aspects include advanced planning, preparation, ensuring effective use and dissemination of mission data, how deployment of fifth generation aircraft is conducted, actual combat employment design, and supporting operations with appropriate logistics and sustainment practices.
While fifth generation aircraft do not provide decision makers with a single-point solution, their demonstrated ability as valued contributors to strategic deterrence, capacity as advanced airborne echelons, and operational utility as enduring force multipliers make them indispensable to future joint force operations.
In addition to the elements of fifth generation airpower described in this paper, future concepts of employment should aim to focus on several integration priorities. These areas include refining connectivity between legacy and fifth generation aircraft, improving connections between fifth generation airborne platforms, improving integration with space and cyber capabilities, and integrating fifth generation platforms with other components of joint and combined force operations. Integration advances in these areas will aid progress towards the goal of creating a cloud-based architecture where every element of air, space, and cyber power contribute to conducting disaggregated, distributed operations over a wide area. The complementary employment of capabilities from all domains will enhance the effectiveness of future combat operations, and help compensate for vulnerabilities.
The need to explore these concepts will only increase. In the coming decade, fifth generation aircraft will grow and mature in sufficient numbers to give the US and our allies a definitive strategic advantage to counter the advancement of modern weapon systems used by potential adversaries. These potential adversary weapon systems, from aircraft to cruise missiles to advanced SAMs and cyber capabilities, are currently contributing factors to the destabilization of contested regions around the world. Fifth generation aircraft are critical to returning the military balance to our favor. Along with thoughtful integration and investment in select legacy aircraft, the maturation of fifth generation aircraft capabilities in sufficient numbers will better enable joint force operations that will provide the US and its allies a wider range of options to secure our interests in a scenario which could emerge in the coming years.