Fifth-Generation Air Combat
Cutting-edge aircraft deliver a joint force advantage
Lt. Gen. Jeff Harrigian and Col. Max M. Marosko/U.S. AIR FORCE
ifth-generation” aircraft are coming of age, becoming a key element in U.S. power projection in the 21st century. The F-22 Raptor, first conceived in the later years of the Cold War as a response to advances in Soviet air combat capabilities, has now operated in the combat Air Force for more than a decade and played a key role in the kickoff of Operation Inherent Resolve over Syria in September 2014 and subsequent operations.
Commanders have discovered that, in addition to the Raptor’s speed, maneuverability and stealth capabilities, it brings immense situational awareness by utilizing sensors in ways few could have imagined in the program’s infancy more than three decades ago. The F-22’s ability to perform strikes, conduct escort operations, collect and manage information, pass taskings in real time and provide dynamic targeting information “has even exceeded our expectations,” Air Combat Command Chief Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle said in February 2015.
The F-22 has the ability to make every asset it works with better, as it connects and leverages the entirety of a strike package in ways older combat aircraft could not do. This holds great implications for the future of air combat and for joint operations as a whole. Fifth-generation aircraft “are key to military success in future conflict,” Carlisle added.
The technologies in the F-22 and the F-35 provide situational awareness of a conflict that is unparalleled in modern war, and lethal tools that enable both aircraft to perform at a higher level. Fifth-generation assets employed by joint forces give the U.S. “the asymmetric advantage we need to win our nation’s wars,” Carlisle added.
Defining fifth-generation aircraft
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, the U.S. Marine Corps’ F-35B Lightning II and the Air Force’s F-35A.
There are many characteristics of fifth-generation aircraft that separate them from older aircraft. These include multispectral 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 multispectral 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. Advanced onboard 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 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 battlespace for friendly forces. The aircraft and its subsystem designs are 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 turns operators of these advanced aircraft into mission commanders, rather than having them focus on managing and operating subsystems.
Despite their capability, fifth-generation aircraft comprise a fraction of the current combat air forces. The average age of a U.S. Air Force airframe is 27 years and rising. Modernizing fighter and bomber forces with sufficient numbers of fifth-generation aircraft is critical for continued combat relevance, especially in light of three trends.
Modern Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) have created regions where fourth-generation aircraft cannot effectively penetrate and hope to survive.
Threat aircraft, air-to-air missiles, electronic attack and electronic protection systems have advanced beyond the capabilities of U.S. fourth-generation fighters.
Fifth-generation aircraft provide a wider variety of wartime options, preserve U.S. 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, including 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 they perform in relationship to the threats they might encounter. They must train for the most demanding scenarios against the latest IADS and enemy aircraft, and U.S. military services, allies and partner nations must also develop a strategy with fiscally realistic and executable plans to adequately train against advanced adversary 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, because flight simulator training is even more important than with older aircraft. Given the current Department of Defense fiscal forecast, the U.S. military will need to increasingly rely on the LVC environment to rehearse for realistic combat scenarios with improved fidelity. 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. 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 use at home station and during deployed operations. Commanders should consider and actively track changing threat conditions and how these can affect the ability to sustain their fifth-generation operations.
Fifth-generation air power and data
Fifth-generation aircraft bring incredible capability into combat but are also some of the most data-dependent machines in the U.S. inventory. They require significant amounts of information to operate at their best.
Fifth-generation aircrew and aircraft rely on mission data files to enable onboard systems to accurately identify friendly, neutral and adversary systems. This data allows fifth-generation pilots to enhance their stealth, or 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 U.S. Air Force (USAF), 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 operational 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 the 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 multidomain situational awareness fifth-generation aircraft can generate, in cooperation with other assets. To perform this effectively, however, requires a detailed systems understanding of data-link architectures and protocols to ensure communication compatibility across the enterprise.
Deploying fifth-generation air power
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). 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, because windows of opportunity to penetrate IADS or to destroy high-value targets may be fleeting. Second, fifth-generation aircraft 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 international partners, but also operating at austere locations.
Deploying and operating from limited support locations does come with challenges. The U.S. 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 multidomain, and the sustainment and support systems must be able to operate in the face of both kinetic and cyber attack.
Employment and sustainment across 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 air power 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 internal carriage configurations of most 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 defenses 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 assets report this information quickly to the mission data enterprise supporting fifth-generation aircraft and other elements of joint force operations.
This seamless information sharing must be achieved to enable rapid reprogramming and re-release of mission data files for optimum employment of allied assets.
To make this a reality, collaboration is critical. USAF units must share lessons with other U.S. military services and, as required, select allied and coalition partners. Sharing with international partners while balancing security concerns will be paramount to successful fifth-generation aircraft employment. Joint and combined training, exercises and even “cross talks” at forums like tactics conferences and training review boards will 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 enterprisewide resource planning and decision-making.
Maintenance of fifth-generation aircraft also requires careful planning to keep the force ready for combat. 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 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-theater fifth-generation assets, along with sister U.S. military service or partner nation logistics networks. When the answers to these sustainment challenges are discovered, they should be analyzed rapidly with respect to the changing phases of a given campaign, training exercise or other engagement involving fifth-generation aircraft.
Fifth-generation aircraft are capable of providing a variety of options for any given contingency. While it may be difficult to visualize how these aircraft can provide an asymmetric advantage to U.S. and partner nation forces, it is not difficult to forecast scenarios where fifth-generation aircraft could be leveraged in response to an adversary nation’s invasion of a neighboring U.S.-aligned country.
Scenario 2026: Seizing the advantage
In one of these potential crises, the year is now 2026. The USAF fields a mixed force of legacy and fifth-generation aircraft. In response to rising tensions in a key region abroad, aircraft based in the continental U.S. (CONUS) are mobilized along with other assets. Adversary-sponsored cyber attacks immediately attempt to target unclassified computer systems supporting fifth-generation aircraft deployment, including the F-35’s Autonomic Logistic Information System, but are successfully thwarted by a combination of cyber defense and backup capabilities.
While CONUS-based fifth-generation aircraft gear up for future combat missions, several squadrons of fifth-generation aircraft rapidly deploy and disperse to numerous military and civilian airfields, making sure not to concentrate more than a single squadron at any one location. Consequently, adversary planners are unable to effectively use ballistic or cruise missile attacks to score a pre-emptive “knockout” blow against forward-deployed aircraft, and fifth-generation missions continue with little impact. Though some expeditionary airfields have navigation or air traffic control facilities, by 2026 F-35 and F-22 pilots are now adept at conducting autonomous all-weather operations (such as landing in inclement weather using the aircraft’s sensors to find the runway). This also reduces the number of personnel and equipment required for deployment, while greatly increasing the number of airfields available.
As combat operations begin, U.S. military fifth-generation aircraft (both CONUS and forward-based assets), along with F-35s from coalition countries effectively integrate and collaborate in the opening phase of operations, thanks to prior consideration and exercising of security, maintenance, logistics and command and control (C2) plans. There are no surprises concerning the multilevel security construct of the operation, because the U.S. military has built transparent relationships with key allies and partners in the preceding years.
During the opening days, fighting focuses on the battle for air superiority as aircraft from both sides clash over contested territory. Heavy radar and communications jamming confront U.S. and coalition forces, but fifth-generation aircraft leverage their networked multispectral sensors to detect and target enemy aircraft, while supporting a common operating picture through data links and communication architectures. Though legacy aircraft operate at a distance from the most dangerous threats, they provide critically important layered defense in depth for ongoing operations.
During the initial days of the conflict, F-35s occasionally return to their bases — only to discover several are heavily damaged from enemy missile attacks. Executing contingency plans, they divert to a nearby civilian airfield and use pilot swap-out procedures to reposition aircraft to another F-35 operating location, allowing these assets to continue fighting despite heavy airfield attacks. In one instance, a USAF F-35 is forced to recover at an Australian F-35 airbase after an inflight malfunction makes it impossible to return to its original deployment location. Royal Australian Air Force maintenance technicians are able to quickly repair, rearm and refuel the USAF F-35 in a manner similar to U.S. maintenance and regeneration practices. The F-35 rejoins combat operations the next day.
Also during the initial stage of the conflict, several civilian aircraft are damaged during airfield attacks, halting commercial logistics operations. In response, contingency plans link up commercial and military distribution channels to enable adequate supplies of spare parts, weapons and fuel destined for dispersed airfields. This sustains these locations for several weeks until enemy cruise and ballistic missile inventories are depleted or destroyed.
As operations continue, it becomes apparent stealth aircraft like the F-22, F-35, B-2 and B-21 are the only aircraft capable of operating over the contested territory due to the large number of adversary mobile advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) deployed. Fifth-generation fighters achieve most of the air-to-air kills, since older fighters find themselves vulnerable to the long reach and lethality of advanced SAMs. Fortunately, F-35s use advanced geolocation capabilities, combined with their stealth signature and electronic warfare tools, to neutralize many of these SAMs, allowing joint force operations to steadily increase their freedom of action.
Despite heavy kinetic and nonkinetic attacks on the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), the air commander is still able to provide C2 to legacy and fifth-generation units by using preplanned distributed C2 procedures specifically designed to allow the entire force to operate, even when the CAOC is offline. These procedures rely on redundant communication systems requiring little bandwidth and commanders’ guidance in the run-up to conflict, specifically tailored to ensure decentralized operations that contribute to campaign objectives. F-35s and F-22s put their advanced sensors and long-range communications to use as key elements of these decentralized operations. Aircraft take off with minimal information — little more than a general target area that may be more than 1,000 miles away. On the way to target, the fifth-generation aircraft receive minimal tanker, threat and target information, but sufficient updates to enable them to ingress, identify and prosecute targets successfully.
During one adversary attack on an operating location, several operations and maintenance personnel are killed in a ballistic missile strike. Allies provide personnel to fill in for these casualties and maintain the current operations tempo until U.S. reinforcements arrive.
As the conflict continues, fifth-generation aircraft seek out, degrade and destroy advanced SAMs in contested territory, creating a more moderate threat environment. This enables legacy aircraft to operate alongside their fifth-generation counterparts. The mature integration and full operational capabilities of fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft working together proves the turning point in the conflict, as the mix provides U.S. and coalition forces needed flexibility, mass and depth of munitions to gain the advantage.
Employing the advantage
This concept of employing fifth-generation airpower lays out and defines the operational need for these vital aerial warfare systems. But employing these aircraft in future combat requires careful attention across several 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. This potential future combat scenario illustrates how each of these elements could come together and enable success in a modern air campaign or joint combat operation.
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.
Future concepts of employment should aim to focus on several integration priorities. These 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 help move toward 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 U.S. and its 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 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 U.S. and its allies a wider range of options to secure our interests in a scenario like the one described, or many others which could emerge in the coming years.
The Indo-Asia-Pacific invests in fifth-generation aircraft
Nations in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region are in a technological race to develop or buy “fifth-generation” combat aircraft to achieve air dominance.
While the U.S. employs two fifth-generation fighters — the F-22 Raptor and F-35 joint strike fighter — Indo-Asia-Pacific nations are investing and inventing to keep up, and in many cases, partnering with the U.S.
These aircraft incorporate stealth technology, powerful communication systems and advanced sensors. They also have price tags that are too steep for some smaller countries. Lockheed Martin’s program manager recently said the F-35A, the Air Force variant of the aircraft, costs about U.S. $100 million per plane. That hefty price tag hasn’t deterred Indo-Asia-Pacific nations with robust military budgets.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has committed to purchasing 72 F-35s for three squadrons to replace its F/A-18 Hornet fleet. Lockheed Martin delivered the first two to Australia in 2014. The RAAF says more planes will arrive in 2018, and the first squadron will be operational in 2021. All 72 aircraft are expected to be operational by 2023, according to the RAAF website.
Australia may add a fourth squadron for a total of 100 F-35s, but a final decision hasn’t been made on that expansion. A U.S. expert says F-35 purchases by Australia and other partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region will create a lethal fighting force and strong deterrent to armed conflict.
“Hypothetically, our ability to leverage fifth-generation capabilities from our partner nations will allow us to have much more efficient and lethal combat operations,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Max Marosko, an F-22 Raptor pilot and deputy director for air and cyberspace operations at Headquarters Pacific Air Forces in Hawaii.
This synchronized force with cutting-edge technology allows the partners to “rely on their increased lethality to minimize the duration of combat operations if the tensions escalate to that level,” Marosko added.
China is developing two models of fifth-generation fighters. The Chengdu Aerospace Corp. J-20 is China’s version of the F-22 Raptor. It is designed to be an air superiority fighter, according to The Diplomat, an online magazine. China’s F-35 counterpart is the Shenyang J-31, which will provide close-air support, aerial bombing and suppression of enemy air defenses.
The J-20 is expected to be operational by 2018, and the J-31 by 2020.
Some American officials question whether intelligence for these fighters was stolen from the U.S., as it appears to be another example of techno-cloning by the Chinese. In September 2015, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia remarked in a hearing with Pentagon officials that the J-20 is strikingly similar to the F-22, and the J-31 is similar to the F-35.
Six months later in March 2016, a Chinese businessman pleaded guilty to conspiring to hack into the computer systems of U.S. defense contractors to steal data on military projects. Su Bin, 50, admitted to conspiring with two unnamed hackers in China to export U.S. military information to the communist nation between 2008 and 2014, according to a federal plea agreement. The men targeted fighter jets such as the F-22 and the F-35. Su was sentenced to nearly four years in prison in July 2016, The Associated Press reported.
India is attempting to negotiate an agreement with Russia for the design and production of a new fifth-generation fighter aircraft, which India calls the Perspective Multirole Fighter (PMF), according to The Times of India newspaper.
In addition to speeding up the design and production of the PMF, India wants to upgrade its fleet of 272 Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters to “Super Sukhois’’ by 2017. India plans to fit the aircraft with new weapons systems and more advanced avionics, according to The Diplomat. While the upgrades would give the aircraft some fifth-generation capabilities, the Super Sukhoi would not be considered a true fifth-generation aircraft.
That’s because they still would lack some fifth-generation characteristics, including internal weapons bays that enhance stealth capabilities.
Japan plans to purchase 42 F-35s, 38 of which are to be manufactured in Nagoya, Japan. The first four are being built in Forth Worth, Texas. Japan received its first F-35 in September 2016 during a ceremony in the U.S., and it will join the Japanese Air Self-Defense fleet in 2017.
Japan is also developing its own fifth-generation air superiority fighter to replace its aging F-15s. A prototype of the ATD-X, also called the Mitsubishi F-3, was intergrated into Japan’s X-2 program and flown for the first time April 22, 2016.
Japan says the ATD-X will have state-of-the-art technology. It is expected to be equipped with an active electronically scanned array radar. Data are transmitted in the ATD-X by optical fibers rather than wires, so they are transmitted faster and are supposed to be immune to electromagnetic disturbance.
South Korea signed an agreement with the U.S. in 2014 for the purchase of 40 F-35s. Initial deliveries will start in 2018, and all aircraft are expected to be in place by 2021.
In addition to this purchase, the South is working on its own indigenously produced aircraft, the KF-X. In August 2016, the government said it will complete the development of an advanced radar system for the fighter jets by 2026. The country hopes to develop 120 by the mid-2020s, according to the Yonhap News Agency.
The KF-X is termed a “4.5 generational platform” because it has stealth capabilities greater than the F-16s it has now but somewhat short of the F-35 and its counterparts, The Diplomat reported.
Indonesia has already signed on to the KF-X program and hopes to receive 80 fighters once they are completed.
One key to making this technology leap effective will be an ongoing exchange of information and training between partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, Marosko said.
“We have been sharing information with our partners for years in the F-22” through pilot exchange programs with Australia and the United Kingdom, Marosko said. “They have been exposed to our fifth-generation tactics/capabilities and will bring this knowledge back to their F-35 programs.”
Russia expects by the end of 2017 to begin mass producing its fifth-generation Sukhoi PAK FA fighter jet, which is also known as the T-50.
A T-50 prototype made its first flight in 2010. Sukhoi has promised to produce a highly maneuverable stealth fighter with supercruise capabilities that can match Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor in air-to-air combat.
The T-50 will have sophisticated avionic systems and a variety of electronic warfare components. Experts believe the F-22 has the stealth advantage, while they praise the T-50 for its maneuverability, according to an article in the National Interest magazine.