Back in the Cold War era, there were Western-allied air forces on one side using NATO-standard communications and IFF equipment, and Warsaw Pact-allied air forces on the other side using Soviet-standard communications and IFF equipment, and they never met except as adversaries in battle. Both sides exported equipment aggressively, but only to countries they considered friendly enough.

Now, the Cold War is basically over. The major players (US, Europe, Russia) continue to make sales in the export market for their equipment, while more independent-minded folk in minor powers are not restricting themselves to a single source, leading to cases like the Royal Malaysian Air Force where Flankers and Hornets share the same flightline. However, in that case, the RMAF has the power to order or retrofit everything with the same comms radios and IFF gear, and probably has done just that so they can all talk to each other and figure out who's who securely.

However, the fall of the Cold War has also meant that fighting has centered around coalitions to neutralize specific belligerent "hotspots" (the First Gulf War being a prime example of this). This means that in some areas of the world, it is quite plausible that you have an air force with MiGs and an air force with F-16s on the same side of the fight, trying to work together against a common foe.

This raises a question though: how do you get everyone on the same side of the fight on the same page regarding communications and IFF gear? Did the Russians reverse-engineer and adopt the NATO COMSEC and IFF standards, relying on key control to keep the streams from mixing? Or would there be much furious last-second swapping of radios and IFF boxes in such a coalition situation to allow the MiG pilots and their F-16 pilot friends to talk to each other securely and to know where each other is? Would the communication situation fall on ground relays to straighten out?

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    $\begingroup$ The RMAF and IFF; reminds me of this bar story. On the first flight test for a new IFF radar of the RMAF, some 20 odd years ago, the two flight test aircraft collided after turning each other's direction immediately after take-off and crashed. A month later, after the dust settled, they tried again. Learning from their previous mistake they planned on taking-off shortly after each other instead of next to each other. This time however, the IFF transponder in the first aircraft wasn't configured correctly which caused an alert in the cockpit as soon as the aircraft was seen by the radar. ... $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    May 17, 2017 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ ...The pilot, not familiar with the alarm, thought of an engine failure and aborted the take-off. His wingman, following closely behind him, noted this too late and crashed into him. The radar engineer in charge of installing IFF on the radar, a friend of mine, wasn't impressed with the RMAF's performance and remarked: "Soon you won’t need IFF anymore because you won’t have any friendly aircraft left". $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    May 17, 2017 at 17:34
  • $\begingroup$ I read, but cannot retrieve articles, that the data links between allied have been a failure during the first Gulf conflict, AWACS command posts being unable to play the role of coordination/integration between allied forces they were supposed to play. I'm not an expert on military matters, so feel free to correct me. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    May 17, 2017 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ @mins There is a difference between "difficulty" and "failure." I will suggest that you have been the victim of a bit of hyperbole. The Data Link Interoperability problem within NATO has a long and distinguished, and colorful history in part due to the NATO STANAG being built for lowest common denominator/interoperability, and various nations like the US forging ahead with better Link than the LCD. This is in part due to various nations not spending their 2%, but also due to how expensive some kit is versus the GDP and tax base of some NATO nations. $\endgroup$ May 17, 2017 at 18:59
  • $\begingroup$ Never, ever, let someone maneuver to your 6 unless he is your wingman. $\endgroup$
    – Aaron
    Jun 18, 2017 at 13:47

2 Answers 2


You do multinational exercises

This is a good question that was in part answered for some NATO and neighboring countries under a program called the "Partnership for Peace." That's one of many methods various nations have used to exercise and practice interoperability, which includes figuring out the communications play. SEATO was another regional interoperability vehicle, as is OAS.

The first exercises I got involved with (mid-to-late 90's) were Non Combatant Evacuation Operations and Peace Keeping exercises with former Warsaw Pact countries. It was very much a crawl, walk, jog, trot, run, sprint development model. It doesn't happen overnight, but exercises, practice, training, and extensive military-to-military contacts go a long way toward identifying what is and what isn't interoperable.

As to "swapping IFF boxes" that's rather pointless. You can develop procedural control for (Return to Force)RTF procedures, and you have to accept that in a lot of cases you can't use encrypted comms. What you do as a group is develop a comm plan that uses generically common radio equipment (do we all have VHF? Yes? No?). Each operation will have its own wrinkles and details.

You build on previous multilateral operations like UN Peacekeeping

Since the UN stood up in 1945, over a hundred nations have some experience in contributing forces and equipment to UN Peace Keeping operations, and to other UN combined operations (like the UN Operations in Bosnia before 1995, or the peace keeping in the Sinai forever). With this experience, nations have built up some "lessons learned" as a base for working with each other.

There is no easy button; you have to do formal planning

You don't just show up with your five helicopters, say "We are here!" and get to work right away. Your air force staff will be in contact with the other countries' air force staffs and a communications plan will be established. A general layout for forces will be agreed, such as "who goes where?" and it takes detailed effort to establish that. A whole host of other details get ironed out like how to get the fuel to the airfield. (See problems in Rwanda, 1994, for a prime example of the nightmare that can be).

Military Planning, both long term and short term, is an art in and of itself. (It's painful -- been-there-done-that-got-the-t-shirt -- but it must be done).


An Operational Example

Here is an operational example of a situation where there was no lead time, no preparation time to plan for a response to a politically tense situation, and yet there was need for close coordination between those directing the fight and those fighting the fight.

I was an A7-E light attack pilot on the USS Nimitz. Sadat had been assassinated in 1981 and the boat was directed to a station off the coast of Lebanon. Once getting there the A7's were kept on 5 minute alerts throughout the night. Fully armed with APAM, I can remember sitting in the aircraft at 3:45 in the morning. It was difficult to keep my mind and body ready for a five minute launch into a night attack in an unfamiliar territory and minimal guidance.

But we had our Forward Air Controllers (FAC) and they were good. In fact, all of the controllers I had throughout my 2 tours were very professional, and excellent at what they did. The FAC is in the country, on the ground, maybe in the air, directing the aerial attack assets. A brief description would be that they keep the aircraft in holding patterns, bring them in on specific targets, and further direct the attack by helping the pilot identify the target. Think of your own in-flight/approach controller managing a combat attack.

They had come out to the ship earlier and briefed the pilots on radio communications and procedures. I remember being given a bunch of colored knee board cards in this really small, cramped courier type. Made me smile, because at night in the red light of the cockpit, coming in for a strike they would have been unreadable. So I studied them when I wasn't flying and memorized their information. They were loaded with stuff about procedures, holding points, timing, call signs, authentication, etc.

Having the face-to-face communication was a great way to prepare for the engagement where several countries, and different agencies, were coordinating a military response.

Practice & Discipline versus Deceit

Here is another way to frame the question. What often gets neglected in these sorts of discussions is the role cunning and deceit play in combat. I remember coming through my first air-combat-maneuvering training syllabus. Outside the ready room were quotes from famous Aces. I remember a quote from the top Japanese Ace in WWII. He said that for 90% of his kills his adversary never saw him. He just flew up under their 6 and shot them down.

The practice and preparation I experienced in the Fleet seldom included exercises which exposed weaknesses to "infiltration." In the following post there is an interesting example where coordination within a battle group was compromised with deceit and patience. In this case there were multiple assets being directed by unfamiliar controllers: What is the average speed used by modern jet fighters when in dogfight?

I heard this sort of thing talked about only two times. Once was with a new pilot who came into our squadron. He asked, "Why are we using the same tactics for a war-at-sea strike that we have used for the last 20 years, and with which the Russians are now quite familiar?" His question was never addressed by our command, although he and I discussed the problem in depth and attempted to address the issue ourselves.

Situational awareness and the ability to think outside the box is what keeps a pilot alive. A dogfight I participated in emphasizes this fact. Effective communication only gets you so far. Is it possible to perform a spin recovery in IMC?

More importantly, the second time I heard this topic brought up was when we were preparing for a particular real world engagement. It was noted that the Russians would have English speaking agents on the Net. They wouldn't be speaking perfect English, but native English, and would be difficult to distinguish from other American pilots. That is the threat.

You can have the most secure communications, and I will find a way to deceive you, and then the complacency your security has encouraged will be your worst enemy. In this case discipline and preparedness protect the flight. Practice like you will fight.


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