The Difference Between 4th and 5th Gen EW

An F-35A during a sensor fusion test flight in February of 2014. (Lockheed Martin)

An F-35A during a sensor fusion test flight in February of 2014. (Lockheed Martin)

The Association of Old Crows (AoC) annual conference in Washington is the arguably the largest gathering of electronic warfare experts in the world. For three days, the basement of the Marriott Wardman Park in Northwest DC becomes the center of the EW-community, a mecca of sorts for those who gets down with wavelengths, sensors and receivers.

Unsurprisingly, experts from the Pentagon are well represented, both on the show floor and in the conference halls. Among those speaking Oct. 8 was Air Force Lt. Col. Gene “Joker” McFalls, F-35 Enterprise Lead with the 53rd Electronic Warfare Group.

McFalls was speaking as part of an Air Force panel on electronic warfare, but specifically was there to talk about the difference between 4th-gen fighters — legacy systems such as the F-15 or F-16 — and 5th gen fighters, such as the F-22 and McFalls’ focus, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

Defenders of the F-35 claim the jet will be the world’s most advanced fighter. Where the plane will really shine is in the sensor fusion, McFalls said, taking the information from the plethora of sensors on the plane and taking the various data streams, combining them and spitting out easy to understand information.

Right now, pilots have to look at a number of different information streams, then mentally make decisions on how to react. The F-35 will do all those mental calculations for the pilot, McFalls said, freeing them up to focus on the operation unfolding around them.

“So what’s the big difference in 4th gen vs 5th gen?,” McFalls asked the audience. “Basically.. fusion is going to take place in the pilot or electronic warfare officer’s brain in a 4th gen aircraft. This is probably oversimplifying it, but ‘fighter pilot see bad guy, club bad guy with stick.’ It’s Og the Caveman, right?”

“Whereas with 5th gen, it’s ‘Dave, there is a MiG-100 out there. Would you like to kill him now? Check yes or no.’”

His disturbingly excellent HAL-voice aside, McFalls continued to lay out the case for 5th gen technology and how it might play out during a run-in with another fighter:

So you’re going to take all of those sensor inputs — your radar, your electric-optical, your comm, your distributed aperture system and your radar warning, and it’s going to fuse them all together to give the pilot a more accurate picture of what’s going on for situational awareness and how he’s going to engage that. And that’s the big advantage you get with including all these sensors, because you’re reducing the ambiguity down and enabling them to deploy the aircraft more effectively…

With a 5th gen display, it’s going to tell you pretty much what aircraft it is and what level of confidence it has determined that, and what the different sensors on the aircraft are predicting that threat to be. So what happens if we don’t get this mission data program done effectively? With your legacy EW, the pilot has to do the fusion in his brain…

With 5th gen, you start with the [electronic warfare database] data, going into the fusion engine, and then you can start eliminating things. So we get the characteristics and performance. We know it’s flying, so it can’t be a ground based threat. We have airspeed, we have altitude, that kind of thing. We add IR signatures. Ok, now we have mission data that lets us know whatever the threat is, it’s a [radar cross section] of X and its size is Y, so we know it’s probably not that first aircraft.

Then we take the order of battle data and the [geospatial intelligence] data, and we know where we’re flying, what the country has in their inventory. So we can eliminate it down, reduce the ambiguities so the pilot gets a representation of what the sensor fusion actually thinks the threat is. It takes all that data, fuses it together into that unique platform identification.

“Take away that data,” McFalls said, and all that’s left is “a stealthy F-16.”

It’s a continuation of a theme seen with the F-22 Raptor, the first 5th-gen fighter that is finally being used in action over Syria. Experts have highlighted the Raptor’s advanced suite of ISR sensors as being just as key to allies as its air-to-air capabilities or the ability to strike targets on the ground.

McFalls admitted a lot of work remains to make sure the full capabilities of the jet are unlocked, and that’s part of what his team is working on. But if the system works the way he told the audience to envision it, the F-35 is going to be very popular among pilots of the future.

Aaron Mehta

Aaron Mehta

Air Warfare Correspondent at Defense News
Aaron covers the Air Force for Defense News. In his spare time, he tweets about the Air Force for Defense News. Follow him @AaronMehta
Aaron Mehta