Air Warfare in Transition

Dec. 1, 2004

Air warfare tactics are on the verge of what many believe will turn out to be a far-reaching revolution.

Unlike past generations of airmen, today’s pilots are not advancing the tactical art purely on the basis of acquiring newer and better platforms. The factors driving the transformation are more profound than mere hardware.

The latest great leaps forward are being built on complex combinations of aircraft, sensors, data links, and other elements. Information passed through an airborne network will form the heart of future tactical operations.

Stealth and precision—the technologies that exerted the most impact on air tactics in the 1990s—will be enhanced, augmented, and, at times, overshadowed by technologies ranging from programmable waveforms to Internet protocols.

USAF has now entered a period of transition. The concept of the airborne network is evolving from voice-based command and control (C2)—at the tactical or operational level—to a more complex network of data shared in many forms with many users.

The key development to watch is the airborne network’s sophistication—that is, format, processing power, membership, and speed of response.

The first signs of change came during NATO’s Operation Allied Force in the Balkans in 1999. Selective tactical uses of data links and collaborative analysis built a rough network between the combined air operations center (CAOC) in Italy and airborne C2 and strike aircraft.

Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq pioneered a more extensive use of airborne networks to distribute sensor information, share tactical messages, and exert command and control over forces.

The May 2003 end of the major combat operations in Iraq led the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. John P. Jumper, to observe, “We’ve learned the value of things such as networking.” The power of nearly all major strike platforms—from B-2 bombers to A-10 attack aircraft—was multiplied by fresh intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) data or updated CAOC communications and tracking.

Network Neighborhoods

Though the OIF experience was a leap forward, it was a distinctly patchwork approach. The OIF battlespace was filled with “network neighborhoods,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald E. Keys, the deputy chief of staff for air and space operations.

“We had Predator putting video in the AC-130,” he said. “We had people with laptops putting coordinates up in B-52s to drop JDAM [Joint Direct Attack Munitions].” These “little neighborhoods,” as Keys called them, were networks consisting of a limited number of platforms.

Brilliantly functional in places and with certain platforms, it was far from the comprehensive, versatile network that is now envisioned for the future.

In OIF, the “networking was crude,” Jumper has noted. “It was machine-to-machine interfaces, but it was crude. Our kids did it on the chat networks at the speed of typing, not the speed of light.”

A year-and-a-half later, there are platforms and network elements on the horizon that are capable of transforming the tactics of air warfare.

Leading the way are new platforms—such as the F/A-22 stealth fighter and F-35 strike fighter—and major upgrades that permit so-called legacy platforms (such as tankers) to adapt to their new roles.

The Raptor “will be the best sensor on the battlefield for net-centric operations,” reported Lt. Gen. William T. Hobbins, deputy chief of staff for warfighting integration at the Pentagon.

It has the tremendous advantage of having been developed with the computing power, data links, and sensor fusion to qualify it as a network-centric platform.

In addition, powerful air combat simulations already have given program personnel and Raptor pilots the ability to feel out the F/A-22’s capabilities. When the F/A-22 achieves initial operational capability in December 2005, the pilots manning the first squadron will already be familiar with numerous air combat simulation results pointing the way to new tactics.

Likewise, the Joint Strike Fighter will bring its own self-forming tactical network capability when it is fielded in quantity after 2010.

Both platforms also incorporate advanced sensors that will enhance the quality of targeting information by improving both range and resolution.

Two Fighter Roles

The most revolutionary developments may come as the new fighters take on the role of highly survivable forward nodes of an airborne network. In that role, the fighters will act as strike platforms, but they will also survey and reconnoiter the battlespace at great depths.

Strike control and sensor information will pass through the main sinews of the future network: data links.

Several legacy platforms, equipped with upgraded links, already have made stronger connections to the network and play new roles.

Expeditionary operations forced a focus on the tankers, given that they are always present in the airspace for both rapid deployment and combat operations. When the first KC-135 equipped with the Roll-on Beyond Line of Sight Enhancement (known as ROBE) appeared in late 2002, Maj. Gen. Robert F. Behler, then commander of the Air Force C4ISR Center, remarked, “We now have network-centric connectivity for our warfighters.”

The move to a “smart tanker” node was the product of a classified program already in progress, but it was pushed hard after Sept. 11 to rapidly improve USAF network-centric warfare capabilities. Step one was to fit this prototype smart tanker with Link 16 antennae to form a beyond line of sight radio relay from the tanker to other aircraft and onward to air operations centers.

The ROBE tankers show how platforms are now performing a double function: fulfilling existing, autonomous missions (such as air refueling) and contributing to the formation of airborne networks. For the tanker crew, Link 16 allows them to track aircraft in the area instead of relying solely on an airborne early warning system to keep them posted. Situation awareness—in this case, who needs gas, and where they are—lets the tanker crew operate more efficiently.

The F/A-22 will take this double-duty concept to an even more sophisticated level with its intra-flight data link. The IFDL connects F/A-22s to other F/A-22s by means of low wattage, low-probability-of-intercept transmissions, which form a continuous network.

The information that flows through this link can include fuel state, weapons status, and other data which give each pilot a status picture of others in the flight, all under voice radio silence. Individual pilots can operate more autonomously and without radio calls. F/A-22s in a flight can extend their sensor and information relay coverage and make rapid tactical decisions about which aircraft will attack which targets.

Other fighters, from the F-15 to the Swedish Gripen, have used a form of IFDL, but the F/A-22 link will break new ground.

“I have seen these links in our simulators,” said Hobbins. “When I compare the F-15C or F-15E [to the F/A-22], there is a huge leap.”

More Data Links

The F/A-22 will also be equipped with Link 16 (both transmit and receive) in the future. Current Pentagon plans call for all combat aircraft to be Link 16-equipped by the year 2010. Data links on platforms form the basis for an airborne network that can be generated anywhere aircraft operate.

The wider Link 16 airborne network will deliver a powerful advance over current capabilities.

“A lot of our airplanes had not been link-equipped before, and so we’re moving toward more Link 16 equipment” along with other links such as SADL, the situation awareness data link, noted Hobbins. “They’re all very clean tactical … systems to get limited amounts of data through.”

But new technologies offer more. Despite the push to integrate Link 16 on more platforms, those responsible for future architectures are already well aware of its limits and the need to bring onboard the technologies to absorb and supersede the current data link network.

As Hobbins said, “We see that these tactical data link systems have an eventual throughput limit, they have some legacy problems, they have some tribal language issues that point us toward working toward airborne networking.”

OSD C3ISR official Michael S. Frankel was even more blunt. Link 16 “has got to go,” Frankel told a network-centric operations conference in 2003. “It’s a club that costs you $500,000 to join and two weeks to set up.”

Link 16 may be something of a newcomer to air warfare, but its technology is seen by some as old and it has limitations. It has to be set up well in advance and bandwidth is limited. The functional concept behind it is changing, too. Link 16 is a push function—pumping data continuously to pierce a high-jamming environment. Hobbins described today’s airborne network as a push architecture due to the nature of the data links.

In contrast, Hobbins envisioned the future network as a push and pull architecture. “That means it’s going to permit sharing of information based on needs and requests for information,” he said.

The next architecture will be similar to today’s Web-based operations “where we’re actually out there searching for information,” Hobbins explained. Two essentials for the next architecture will be migrating to a common Internet protocol language and “a bigger pipe” of bandwidth “to harness the power brought about by commercial developments” in data operations.

The goal is still setting up the right tactical battlespace networks but more quickly and with more throughput.

Link 16 will then be absorbed into a new kind of network structured around components of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), which will deliver radios capable of using up to 30 wavelengths. One will be a wideband waveform, home to TTNT—the Tactical Targeting Network Technology. Developed in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, TTNT is a way to form up a network between aircraft and other nodes in a matter of seconds. It’s an on-demand system that can connect aircraft from about 100 to 300 miles apart and propel data at 10 megabits/second. “You’ll get a dial tone in less than five seconds,” Air Force Maj. Steve Waller recently told Aviation Today. TTNT could connect both air-to-air and air-to-ground users.

“We like TTNT [as a variant of the wideband network waveform] because it has the ability to move through a lot of frequencies very quickly and the ability to move information very quickly across the network and actually service many platforms in a much broader area,” said Hobbins. In theory, hundreds of users could join the TTNT. Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment (JEFX) 2004 tested TTNT, “and it worked very, very well. We were able to move voice, imagery, chat, all at the same time over a wideband network that was just really exciting to see,” Hobbins said.

Faster Flow

Secure voice, chat, and imagery proved their value in dynamic targeting situations during Operation Iraqi Freedom. A faster flow will have a direct tactical impact, including quicker and more comprehensive updates of target information and greater situation awareness across the battlespace.

A system like TTNT will help make it possible to form spontaneous networks among large groups or selected participants.

The tactical benefits make it well worthwhile to commit substantial resources to improving current capabilities and fielding future airborne networks. Yet there are significant challenges ahead, too.

Capacity is one of them. “We have to put our machinery and our applications on a bandwidth diet,” warned Hobbins.

Security is another. Protecting the network through security measures and information assurance is also vital. Adversary intrusion into the networks has the potential to seriously distort or disrupt operations. “We’re always concerned with that,” acknowledged Hobbins. “And that’s why we do a lot of encryption, and that’s why we have network support operations centers that are able to detect adversaries trying to get into our information network.” Part of the strategy is to instantly advise people if their network is at risk,” Hobbins said. Also, “we’ve got to jump around on frequencies—you can’t just stay on one and become predictable. We have got to protect our systems.”

Obstacles aside, the future airborne network will offer up a diverse array of tools to the primary customers: aircrews executing missions.


“Throughout history, soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen have learned one extremely valuable lesson relative to engagement with an opposing force,” former USAF Chief of Staff Ronald R. Fogleman said in 1995. “That is, if you can analyze, act, and assess faster than your opponent, you will win.”

Analysis and assessment eventually lead to action. Networks do not win wars. Success in combat ultimately depends on how airmen use the network to enhance tactics for weapons employment and other missions.

The tactical benefits of connectivity begin with a basic luxury: sharing a digital image or picture of the area of interest. One high payoff area is close air support. Traditional close air support procedures centered on whether or not the controller and the pilot preparing to bomb or strafe could convince each other that they were looking at the same thing. The old ideal was to have the pilot’s eyes on the target, the controller’s eyes on the target, and the controller’s eyes on the pilot’s aircraft. Formal distinctions made allowances for less than ideal conditions such as the controller not seeing the aircraft or rules of engagement permitting the pilot to drop on relayed coordinates.

Sharing digital images from cockpit to cockpit or ground controller to cockpit changes the tactics. “If I am working close air support, for instance, and I’m looking at a picture on the ground, and talking to a battlefield airman on the ground, it would be nice if he and I were looking at the same picture and he could in effect create this John Madden effect,” said Hobbins. He was referring to the NFL commentator and ex-coach’s habit of redrawing football plays over an image of the field with a yellow electronic grease pencil to explain what went right or wrong.

Hobbins gave an example from a recently completed phase of Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment 2004. He and Jumper were at Nellis AFB, Nev., standing in a parking lot surrounded by cars, while “15 miles away we had an A-10 with a LANTIRN pod looking at us.” The A-10’s job was to spot the two generals.

“You can see the parking lot, you can see the sea of cars, but can you see where we are? By both of us looking at the same picture, you could in fact talk the A-10 pilot’s sensor to where we needed to talk him to, without creating a lengthy explanation,” Hobbins said. That degree of refinement could open up a whole new realm of targeting, vastly different even from the OIF experience of targeting by numbered subcomponents of a kill box grid.


Sharing a real-time picture synchronizes controller and pilot, but in other cases, knowing how fresh the information is can be essential to the mission, even in a world of near-instantaneous transmission. Take the key issue of the rate at which information is updated. What looks like a common operating picture from the command center may mask a time lag. If the command center’s snapshot is even a few minutes out of date, friendly forces may have moved into areas that look clear.

Hobbins singled out blue force tracking as an example. “If you look at blue force tracking, you’ve got to worry about the latency effect there,” he said. “Seven minutes from the time I hit one target to the time I get an update on it might be good enough in some situations, but if I’m about ready to attack a target, that’s clearly unacceptable. I need something more in the seconds range,” he said.

The ultimate prize is a tactical blending across the whole joint force. Take, for example, the task of rapid targeting. “Say we have a time-sensitive target that’s been nominated,” said Hobbins, “and we want to know, given the information that’s put out [on the net], who can attack that target in what period of time.” Hobbins foresees a time when all joint force components in the battlespace are linked on a network where they share positional and tracking information in real time. Sharing information allows the components to come on-line and say, “I can kill that target in five minutes. Or the Air Force might come along and say ‘I could kill that target in 17 seconds’ because I just happen to know, real time, that I have an asset airborne with the right weapon over the target in a very short period of time that can kill that target.”

Correspondingly, the command center might review the kill options and make a decision to wait on the strike, holding off until a platform with a lower collateral damage weapon is available, for example.

The point is that the shared, assured network erases the old battlefield buffers and control measures. No longer is it necessary to draw lines and fix operating areas to assign responsibility and deconflict fires. In return, the joint force commander gets maximum effect from the force. Analysis, action, and assessment feed back into the network, updating the battlespace awareness of all players, from soldier to pilot to component commander and streamlining the efficiency of execution.

Too Much Information

When does a “wealth of information” become an “overload”

Some philosophies espouse “power to the edge,” defined as the place where an organization interacts with its operating environment. Peer-to-peer interaction is one example. In air combat, that might mean the four F/A-22 pilots in a data-linked flight, for example.

Vice Adm. Thomas R. Wilson, a retired director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, sounded a warning to Jane’s Defence Weekly in 2002. Wilson’s view was “power to the edge—I think that is fine, … but it better have a system of analysts in it to interpret all the data that is available and turn that into value-added information and into what I would call intelligence.”

In the cockpit, keeping the focus on value-added information, not a data glut, is even more critical.

Hobbins expressed it this way: “We have to reduce the amount of information that we force on the warrior at the end of the information chain. Having been a fighter pilot, I can tell you that load of information that comes in when you’re surrounded by a bunch of sensors in the cockpit needs to be put together in such a manner that I can make an informed decision.” The best way to deliver “combat information,” as Hobbins termed it, is to deliver to the pilot a sensor picture of what the pilot needs to do. An image is ideal, and that is exactly what the fused cockpit sensors of the upcoming F/A-22 and JSF will do.

Not all of the benefits go to the aircrews. Those in the CAOC are already applying the advantages of networking to uniquely operational-level problems of air warfare. Networking collaboration has already helped with operational-level concerns such as predicting when weather patterns will alter battlespace conditions. “We have gotten better at being able to depict where weather will impact our sensors said Hobbins, adding that it is now possible to “reschedule sensors”to avoid weather conflicts for the particular sensor in use.

The gold standard is instantly updated combat information—where a network of archived information blends with instant blue and red force positions, instant bomb damage assessment, and rapid resource allocation.

In the revolution ahead, it is important to remember that the drive of tactical requirements—gleaned from tests, experiments, and, most of all, from wartime experience—will spur technological development. New tactics and new technologies meet on a two-way street. For example, one of the early purposes of the F/A-22 intra-flight data link was to improve the percentage of pilots making air-to-air kills. That tactical impulse spurred technology development that is now driving multiple tactical uses far beyond the original scope.

Most of the promising technological developments can be traced to tactical requirements. Nothing shows this better than the JEFX series. “From JEFX, we’ve pushed a lot of things to the warfighter because they were things that he said he needed,” Hobbins said. “From 1998 to present, 32 of 78 initiatives that we tried [at a JEFX], we’ve actually put in the field.”

With data links still being fielded and Internet protocols wide open to debate, much remains to be done before the future architectures become familiar tactical tools. But the Air Force is on the right path. “I’m really optimistic about where we’re going,” said Hobbins. “I do believe that technology will get us to where we want to go, which I believe is the self-forming, self-healing global information grid in the long term. Quite frankly, you could look out to the 2020 time frame and say hopefully we’ll be there by then, and I believe technology will move us even faster, and we’ll have great elements of this airborne network by the 2014 time frame.”

Rebecca Grant is a contributing editor of Air Force Magazine. She is president of IRIS Independent Research in Washington, D.C., and has worked for Rand, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force. Grant is a fellow of the Eaker Institute for Aerospace Concepts, the public policy and research arm of the Air Force Association’s Aerospace Education Foundation. Her most recent article, “The Dresden Legend,” appeared in the October issue.