Slider: Ice, we’ve got a problem. I have four aircraft on radar. Four bogeys.

Iceman: Wood, we’ve got four bogeys.

Wolfman: Wrong, make that five!

More than 30 years after the 1986 blockbuster Top Gun, a new upgrade to the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system helps pilots avoid dangerous situations like the one featured in the movie’s final scene.

“This is a huge upgrade,” said Frank Whiston, director of IFF for Integrated Communication Systems at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, one of the four businesses that form Raytheon Technologies. “Mode 5, the new system, can better identify friendly aircraft from long-range distances, especially when they are flying in close formation.”

The IFF system identifies friendly forces, increasing situational awareness and reducing risk of fratricide. Mode 5 improvements include new cryptography, stronger security features, modern signal modulation and greater data content, as well as lethal interrogations that provide a final challenge to a targeted platform prior to weapons engagement — even when the platform is flying radio silent.

In 2019, Raytheon Intelligence & Space and Hanwha Systems signed a $170 million technical cooperation agreement to produce IFF Mode 5 systems across more than 40 types of air and maritime platforms for the Republic of Korea military.

When Whiston was describing these capabilities to a Republic of Korea colonel and his team, Whiston said the colonel remarked “Oh, like Top Gun.”

“I had to think about it for a second and go back. I remembered the scene and said to him, ‘absolutely…just like Top Gun,’” Whiston said.

There are three stages to identifying an aircraft as friend or foe: radar detection, antenna reception and IFF interrogation.

“An aircrew establishes themselves in a Combat Air Patrol waiting for an event that would trigger a response,” said Joe “Grip” Beissner, who flew the F-15E Strike Eagle in the U.S. Air Force and now works for Raytheon Intelligence & Space. “If the trigger is met, then the aircrew will engage the adversary using on-board sensors.”

“In a typical scenario, you are initially too far from the adversary to detect them on your own radar so you have to use off-board systems for situational awareness,” Beissner said. “As you close in on the threat, you transition to your own avionics, in this case your fire control radar, and you activate the IFF system.”

If a pilot is flying in an F-15, it would be equipped with an active electronically scanned array, or AESA, radar. The radar would detect an oncoming aircraft and signal to the IFF Electronically Steered Antenna. The antenna would pass the signal to the IFF Mode 5 system for interrogation.

“What you need in today’s environment is a ‘lack of friendly’ and a ‘positive hostile’ before you can engage,” said Beissner. “So, when you activate IFF, you essentially are trying to elicit a response to find out whether you’ve got a good guy or a bad guy in front of you.”

Pilots sometimes fly in a state of radio silence. They disable their transponders so the aircraft doesn’t reply to any interrogations, which could potentially reveal themselves to detection by hostile forces who might be listening.

Lethal interrogation, one of the biggest Mode 5 updates, enables the interrogating pilot to override another aircraft flying radio silent and elicit a response, enhancing fratricide prevention. It’s a pilot’s last steps in a shoot-no shoot decision.

Raytheon Intelligence & Space has installed and maintained IFF interrogators and transponders on more than 120 types of aircraft, ships and land vehicles around the world.

Learn more about RIS’s Communications & Navigation Solutions here.