RAF FAIRFORD - The U.S. Air Force’s plans for a forthcoming program to buy a communications system to connect fifth-generation fighters to their fourth-generation counterparts is only a first step, according to Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh.

Ultimately, within a few years, he wants to embark on a similar effort to facilitate sharing of data -– threat pictures, for example -– among fifth-generation systems, including the F-35. But, with its initial operational capability not expected until 2016, “We have a couple of years,” he told Aviation Week during the Royal International Air Tattoo gala July 11 attended by air chiefs from around the globe.  

The immediate problem is to get F-22 connected to fourth-generation fighters; they were designed specifically during the Cold War to only talk covertly among other F-22s with the in-flight data link (IFDL).

The Air Force hopes to issue a request for proposals for the Multi-Domain Adaptable Processing System (Maps) by year end with an award slated for next year. This is likely to be a podded system that reaches back to a communications gateway in the rear of the threat area.

F-22s were slated for use in the Libya campaign in 2011 but scrapped from plans because they could not transmit their threat pictures to less stealthy forces in the rear, prompting the quick-reaction Talon Hate program, says one industry source. In this effort, Boeing is building four pods for use on F-15Cs; they carry radios that can connect to F-22 and fourth-generation fighters and an infrared search and track capability for ground targets.

Welsh said getting the F-22 connected is the more immediate concern. But, ultimately, the fifth-generation aircraft –- also including the secret RQ-180, B-2 and the forthcoming next-generation bomber -– could be networked to provide more situational awareness to the lot of them.