The Way Ahead with the Fifth-Generation Paradigm

By Robbin Laird

Last year, I published my latest book on the fifth generation transition.

In this book, I focused on my experience with those who created this launch point in the period from 2004 to 2018.

My next book will focus on what I coined early on as the F-35 global enterprise and then began to explore what F-35 2.0 might drive in terms of change.

As the fifth generation paradigm evolves and merges into the kill web multi-domain warfighting concepts of operations, how should then consider the way ahead for that paradigm?

I have scheduled interviews with a number of individuals well placed to discuss this question but there is no better place to start than with the father of the fifth generation paradigm, Mike Wynne.

When I first dealt with fifth generation aircraft, I focused on how the F-22 and a relatively expansive global enterprise of F-35s would re-norm airpower, or re-set the baseline for what would be expected from the fighter element of the air combat enterprise.

This was above all the question of how integrated sensors on the F-35 would enable both collaboration across the enterprise and the emergence and spread of a new sensor-shooter relationship in which the fighter’s role was not primarily first kill but location of targets for the multi-domain enterprise to deliver the kill.

Or in other words, the shift was from the fighter as the tip of the spear in a kill chain to becoming a key node in a multi-domain kill web.

I published an article in 2009 which laid out my perspective on the re-norming of 21st century air and military operations which anticipated what is now in front of us, namely the opportunity to leverage the global F-35 enterprise as we expand in the autonomous systems domain, add new weapons, and introduce the new bomber.

This is what I wrote:

“The man-machine attributes and computational capabilities of the F–35 provide a significant opportunity to evolve the robotic elements within airspace to provide for data storage, transmission, collection, weapon emplacement, and loitering strike elements, all of which can be directed by the manned aircraft as the centerpiece of a manned-robotic strike or situational awareness wolf pack.

“Rather than focusing on robotic vehicles as self-contained units with proprietary interfaces and ground stations, the F–35 can be useful in generating common linkages and solutions to combine into a core wolf pack capability.”

But rather than enjoying this significant change in the first decade of the 21st century, we are only now approaching the possibilities. Fighting the land wars and investing in those wars, atrophied the fifth-generation revolution but it is now being relaunched.

We have lost a lot of time and investments in strategic failures and we need to recover before the world of multi-polar authoritarianism changes the global rules to their advantage.

We are in a period where changes in autonomous capabilities, C2 and sensors can accelerate change in military operations and create a variety of ways to deliver a kill web force. But if we fail this time, no less than our liberties are at stake.

I spent more than a decade after my time working with Secretary Wynne and dealing with the launch of fifth generation aircraft to engaging in the standup of the F-35 global enterprise.

Now I am focusing on the next phase of airpower evolution which I believe leverages the  fifth-generation paradigm but by expanding it significantly with the new elements empowering a kill web sensor-shooter distributed force.

To start this next phase, I thought it made the most sense to talk with the man who launched my initial work on fifth generation aircraft, Secretary Mike Wynne. I did so in a meeting and phone conference with him in December 2023.

I asked him what he considered the fifth-generation paradigm to consist of.

Secretary Wynne: “The fifth-generation concept really combines low observability, speed, and networking capability. We continue to push into low observability and networking capability. And we’ve expanded the networking and targeting enterprise thereby essentially introducing the kill web.”

He went back to the origin in his mind of the fifth-generation paradigm:

“The concept was born during NATO exercises during the 1980’s when USAF F-15s working the Dutch F-16s combined the long-range F 15 targeting radar system with the F-16 weapons range. In that war game we basically extended the targeting range for the F-16 and established a rudimentary kill web whereby we employed the F-15s as a targeting device and then the F-16s as a shooter device using information from the F-15.

“But every fighter pilot wanted to be his own weapon systems manager and the Dutch for that war game understood that the F-15 radar could see farther than they could, and therefore farther than the red forces as well. The F-15 could pass targets to them, and they could then employ it, in the absence of seeing the target, they remained unseen by red forces, and so they could employ the passed target to arm and fire their weapons. This was taking Beyond Visual Range to a new level, at the time.

“The paradigm can really then be characterized as better management of the air dominance that was available. And really a constructed innovation of a network enabled engagement whereby we can put the right capability to the best effect while minimizing detection. As well, that’s really increasing the probability for a successful mission.”

He noted that the F-22 was designed primarily as an air dominance fighter and became that element of the fifth-generation dyad, with the F-22 being the faster and larger plane flying at different attitudes from the F-35. But the F-22 unlike the F-35 was not designed primarily as a networked platform, as the concept of network was still aborning.

I noted that compared to when he was in the Pentagon, we simply did not anticipate the numbers of nations who would become F-35 air forces. We started with eight founding partners and now there are 17 nations in the F-35 program. And I think one major challenge is to leverage this opportunity.

Secretary Wynne: “The acceptance of the F-35 by multiple air forces creates an opportunity, but not a reality for introducing the concept of network warfare. This opportunity is not platform driven, and can as well combine different platforms in the war fighter world, but having similar configurations may allow faster force integration.

“In networked warfare, concepts of Identification of Friend and Foe (IFF) must be revamped, as having forces with the same weapons platform, or one that could be mimicked is worrisome.

“Our dominance and trust in cyber is growing still. In a desired engagement, where the engaged Blue forces have been integrated, having the information flow from lots of sensors to lots of weapons controllers will be a tremendous force multiplier.

“Knowing such an engagement could be in colleague with ground or naval integrated networks expands this multiplier, and may allow weapons to target matching, such that minimizing expendables lengthens by minutes or hours of available time on target.

“I used the terminology ‘every weapon a sensor, and some sensors a weapon’ to push for an integrated, and information-based war plan. Now, as we are seeing in Ukraine the span of war concepts is from before WW l to tomorrow, but with limited application of such a concept terminology.

“The flow of information to appropriate weapon systems is seen to be hampered by factors of command and connectivity. Soon, I can see every projectile a sensor to reduce needs for bomb damage assessment. We are entering a period where expending munitions can be a crucial logistics element in the fight.

“The global F-35 enterprise is an unparalleled partnership opportunity. It provides us with an opportunity for multi-domain integration from space to air to ground with the integration of at sea assets as well.

“But we have to work the challenges of protecting the network and preventing adversary entrance into the network to affect our behavior and capabilities. But we need to do this in any case for the entire force, not just the F-35 element.”

Wynne highlighted the importance which the F-35 can provide for time urgent battle damage assessment as they operate which furthers enhances the more effective use of the overall force’s available weapons. With sensors able to see battle damage as sensor rich platforms move into the battlespace, more effective weapons use is possible as we have seen with how the Ukrainians have used their drones in attacking and assessing Russian targets.

But to get the full use of an F-35 global enterprise and one which could lay an effective foundation for the autonomous, weapons and fighter enhancements which are on the way, it is necessary to attenuate the information sharing limitations of current security arrangements.

As Billie Flynn noted after attending the most recent international fighter conference:

“Flynn emphasized that the F-35 global enterprise was gaining momentum in ways that most European political leaders simply did not anticipate. But he saw a divide between the AUKUS three – the U.S., Australia, and the UK – and the rest of the F-35 global enterprise with regard to the kind of collaboration which the jet clearly empowers.”

Wynne returned to the evolution of warfare.

“The next decade is shockingly already here. Concerns for escalation in warfare has turned the engagement ethics back nearly to feudal times. The current survivor from modern warfare is information warfare that is employed thus far to weaken resolve on both sides of each fight.

“The use of drones as sensors and shooters also highlights the move to less expensive autonomous systems. We have also learned that information for shooters and defenders is key. As for altering the nature of warfare, it has highlighted that owning the skies is more important than ever, with the asymmetric approach to warfare cost coming from overhead.”

I asked him a final question: what would he be prioritizing now in terms of new systems?

Secretary Wynne: “Creating a network-based kill web will start with the OODA loop of long ago. Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. With each level of approval or review adding 10 minutes into the process. The broader the mission set, the more applicable the networked kill web is to success. Artificial intelligence can hasten, but might not eliminate the process. We as well are witnessing the schism in the ethics of warfare. Boundaries are both recognized and ignored purposefully.

“Applied to Air Combat, the mission set initially could be to dominate the air. With this mission set the next generation has clear guidance, and low visibility, speed and range will be key.

“Sensors will be pulling target sets from space and surrounding domains. The integration with the other domains could reduce the rate of weapons and cost expenditure, but not so much in the end game where maneuverability, and partnering may well set the mark.

“Applied this to the simpler mission of penetration and destroy becomes a different mission set which might follow quickly.  Integration in the air and space domain will then be valuable. Here, persistence will be key, and that means low visibility, range, payload, and safe refuel will become valuable elements.

“Our Air Forces as a coalition are prepared, but must be trained together on the kill web, and ready for a vicious fight. Sir Winston’s quote comes to mind. ‘Air Superiority is the ultimate expression of military power.’ Presently we might add Space and Cyber superiority as well, to make the full mission set.

“We are seeing a proliferation of weapon systems. By weapon systems, I mean the bullet, the shell, the rocket, and the bomb which can be delivered by a variety of weapons carriers. Notably in this regard are autonomous systems, which challenge one’s ability to control them to ensure that you are getting the effect which is desired. Swamping a target with swarming capabilities is fine as long as that it brings a desired outcome. Not so good if it doesn’t.

“My other concern is to ensure that we build an air combat system which delivers the promised air superiority. We should be investing significantly into figuring out what that mission success looks like in the evolving warfare environment.”

Featured Photo: Royal Australian Air Force Commanding Officer No. 3 Squadron, Wing Commander Adrian Kiely, prepares to fly a F-35A Lightening II aircraft during Exercise Red Flag Nellis 24-1 in Nevada, USA.

Credit: Australian Department of Defensce