5th Gen: Beyond the Rhetoric

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The term fifth gen has been around for about a decade now. But its meaning has shifted over that period. In its earliest iterations, it began as a marketing term around the Joint Strike Fighter; the newest generation of fast jets designed to operate beyond visual range. It was less about dog fighting/ordnance loads and more about the digital battlefield and having the best intelligence to act on with higher levels of precision.

Over time, fifth generation has evolved to become much more than the platform centric approach it was born from.

“The Royal Australian Air Force will become a fifth-generation Air Force,” according to the RAAF’s 2017-2027 Air Force Strategy. “A fifth-generation Air Force is a fully-networked force that exploits the combat-multiplier effects of a readily available, integrated and shared battlespace picture to deliver lethal and non-lethal air power.

“A fifth-generation Air Force will provide the joint and networked effects necessary to prevail against the increasingly complex and lethal threats of warfare in the Information Age.”

The way in which the RAAF aims to achieve this is through a program of work under the Plan Jericho banner with the At the Edge campaign.

“Augmented intelligence is the central concept in shifting the Air Force from one that uses people to operate machines and cooperate with other people, to a force in which people and machines operate together,” according to the RAAF. “Plan Jericho will lead the pursuit of four augmented intelligence lines of effort to help realise the Air Force’s intention to create, accelerate, and harness competitive advantage:

  1. Autonomous processing to infuse machine processing power throughout the force to enhance decision-making quality and tempo.
  2. Advanced sensors to detect and track challenging targets in difficult environments.
  3. Combat cloud to optimise decision and action tempo by integrating the fifth-generation force and enabling resources from across the force to be distributed and applied as a unified whole.
  4. Human-machine augmentation to optimise individual and collective human and human-machine performance within a proactively developed ethical, moral, and legal framework.”

Acknowledging the team effort of the approach was well put by Air Vice Marshal Zed Roberton in his time as Air Commander Australia: “Our fifth-generation edge won’t come through any single vector. It will be the cumulative effect arising from the combination of elements from all three services and Defence APS, as well as those of our allies, industry and academic partners across multiple domains.”

There’s a lot of motherhood statements around the whole concept, I find. Using technology better or differently has been the purview of militaries since the dawn of time. From moving mounted cavalry on horses to vehicles and tanks through to manned and unmanned platforms, weapons and how we use them are in constant evolution. We’ve just come up for fancier names around concepts like mutually assured destruction or transient advantage.

What makes the whole fifth generation approach different from past approaches to how the RAAF uses and exploits technology is that it is much more focused at every level of the organisation. There is a higher level of mindful collaboration around a range of topics and technologies with industry and academic partners. The open acknowledgment that no one party has all the answers and that they will not be found in isolation. It has also been undertaken alongside a cultural shift within RAAF. To paraphrase former Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies, ‘we’ve always had smart people. Jericho just gives them a reason, at every level, to say yes to a new idea and try it.’ It was the license to be innovative, to try and yes, even fail.

This time next year will see the RAAF celebrate its 100-year anniversary. From humble beginnings to the high technology force it is today, it is well positioned for future opportunities across the spectrum of tasks before it.

This article first appeared in the February 2020 edition of ADM. 

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