If the Air Force wants to be effective in future conflicts, it must rethink the way it handles electronic warfare, a retired general said Tuesday.

"Currently, there's no data link between the F-22 and F-35 that would allow them to share targeting data," said Lt. Gen. David Deptula (ret.). "Instead, these two fifth-gen aircraft — built by the same company I might add — operate separate networks riding on proprietary links."

Speaking at the annual Association of Old Crows symposium on electronic warfare, Deptula said it was surprising that "the U.S. military continues to field many closed networks … that cannot share information."

Instead, to meet the demands of the 21st century, the Air Force and Defense Department as a whole must start unifying how they deal with information sharing, he said.

"I suggest there needs to be a common vision that all in the defense community can understand and accept is a desired way ahead," Deptula said. "We must be bound by a common appreciation for the value of electromagnetic-spectrum ops as a critical element of national security."

That doesn't mean that every service needs to be using the same machines or equipment, he said, but it does mean that those systems need to be able to communicate with each other.

The Air Force, Deptula gave as an example, is sometimes has having difficulty sharing information with ground forces.

"The primary data link for aircraft in the U.S. and NATO today is Link 16," he said. "One of the key data links used by the Army and Marine ground forces is the Enhanced Position Location Reporting System, or EPLRS."

"EPLRS does not directly share information with aircraft that could perform close-air support," he continued. "So to rectify this communications problem, the U.S. military modified EPLRS radios, put them on aircraft and created the Situation Awareness Data Link or SADL. Now, SADL-equipped aircraft could communicate with each other and EPLRS surface forces, but not with Link 16-equipped aircraft."

"Unfortunately, these types of challenges continue to exist," Deptula said.

Putting more emphasis on networking and information sharing could also help reduce costs and development time, he said. Currently, electronic-warfare systems are developed separately from one another, which places emphasis on them to be a jack-of-all-trades.

"These shortcomings place pressure upon individual assets to possess numerous internal capabilities. The complexity inherent to this approach is what drives lengthy development cycles which in turn leads to requirement creep, time and cost overruns, and delays in capability," Deptula said.

Instead, better and fast information sharing would "enable individual platforms to harness a wide range of capabilities by sharing critical information," he added.

Having a common digital architecture would also allow any future systems to easily integrate with current operations, Deptula said, an idea often referred to as "plug and play."

Unifying U.S. electronic warfare is becoming increasingly important, because nations like Russia are starting to develop greater digital and electronic capabilities that could pose a challenge to U.S. forces in the future, he said.

"The physics of future combat platforms will not likely change significantly," Deptula said. "But how these systems operate within future battle networks must change to realize the full potential of this informationalized warfare."