Identification friend or foe

Identification friend or foe

An IFF test set used for testing transponders on aircraft
Model XAE IFF kit, the first radio recognition IFF system in the U.S.

Identification, friend or foe (IFF) is an identification system designed for command and control. It enables military and national (civilian air traffic control) interrogation systems to identify aircraft, vehicles or forces as friendly and to determine their bearing and range from the interrogator. IFF may be used by both military and civilian aircraft.

IFF was first developed during World War II. The term is a misnomer, as IFF can only positively identify friendly targets, not hostile ones.[1][2][3][4] If an IFF interrogation receives no reply or an invalid reply, the object cannot be identified as friendly, but is not positively identified as foe. There are many reasons that friendly aircraft may not properly reply to IFF.

IFF is a tool within the broader military action of "Combat Identification (CID), the process of attaining an accurate characterization of detected objects in the operational environment sufficient to support an engagement decision." The broadest characterization is that of friend, enemy, neutral, or unknown. CID not only can reduce friendly fire incidents, but also contributes to overall tactical decision-making.[5]


  • History 1
    • Britain 1.1
    • Germany 1.2
    • Further wartime developments 1.3
  • Early 21st century systems 2
    • NATO 2.1
  • Modes 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


With the successful deployment of radar systems for air defence during World war II, the combatants were immediately confronted with difficulty in distinguishing friendly aircraft from hostile ones; by that time, aircraft were flown at high speed and altitude, making visual identification impossible, and the targets showed up as featureless blips on the radar screen. This led to incidents such as the "battle of Barking Creek", over Britain, and the "air attack on the fortress of Koepenick", over Germany.


Radar coverage of the Chain Home system by 1939.

Already before the deployment of their radar system, the RAF had implemented a tracking system for directing their own forces; aircraft were tracked by triangulating their position from fixed positions, using intermittent "pip-squeak" signals from each aircraft.[6] This system was used during the Battle of Britain to track 'friendly' formations. It used the standard HF radio fit of RAF fighters, plus a control box that essentially contained a timer, so that a pre-arranged signal was 'squawked' at given intervals - to be picked up by the HF/DF tracking stations.

With the introduction of radar, researchers endeavoured to integrate a working IFF system with the radar system. Initial patents for both passive and active radar IFF were filed in the UK by Robert Watson-Watt in 1935 and 1936 respectively. By 1938, researchers at Bawdsey Manor had come up with 'reflectors' mounted on the aircraft designed to reflect the Chain Home wave frequencies - giving friendly forces a distinctive profile on the radar screens. The design, however, proved impractical, as other difficult-to-control factors, including the angle of the incident radar beam with the plane's flight-path, influenced the magnitude of the reflected signal making a consistent friend or foe designation hard to achieve.[7]

The first active IFF transponder (transmitter responder) was the 'IFF Mark I' and was put into operation in 1939. On receipt of an interrogation from the Chain Home radar system (20-30 MHz), consisting of a radar distinctive 'peaked' pulse tuned to a specific frequency, the unit would respond with a signal of steadily increasing amplitude, allowing the radar operators to identify it as friendly.

Flaws in the Mark I version, including the need to constantly adjust it during flight, were rectified somewhat with the Mark II sets; these could also be interrogated by alternate frequency band transmissions, including those from mobile sets in use with the navy and army.[8]

In 1940, English engineer Frederic Calland Williams began work on the Mark III system at the Telecommunications Research Establishment, which was to become the standard for the Western Allies for most of the war. Mark III transponders were designed to respond to specific 'interrogators', rather than replying directly to received radar signals. The system also allowed limited communication to be made, including the ability to transmit a coded 'Mayday' response. The IFF sets were designed and built by Ferranti in Manchester to Williams' specifications. Equivalent sets were manufactured in the US, initially as copies of British sets, so that allied aircraft would be identified upon interrogation by each other's radar.


Code generator from German WW II IFF-Radio FuG 25a Erstling

FuG 25a "Erstling" (English: "Debut") was developed in Germany in 1940. It received the radar frequencies on 125 MHz (Freya radar) and 550–580 MHz (Würzburg radar). To start the identification procedure, the ground operator switched the pulse frequency of his radar from 3,750 Hz to 5,000 Hz.

The airborne receiver decoded that and started to transmit its code. Before departure, two mechanical keys of ten bits each were inserted into the shown reader. The IFF transmitter worked on 168 MHz with a power of 400 watts (PEP). Unfortunately for the Germans, British military scientists designed and built their own IFF transmitter called "Perfectos", which was designed to trigger a response from any FuG 25a system in the vicinity. When mounted in an RAF Mosquito, the "Perfectos" device revealed the position of any German nightfighters fitted with an FuG 25a. As a result, the British "Perfectos" device severely compromised German use of the FuG 25a.

Further wartime developments

The IFF of RCA, filed for a patent for such an IFF device in 1941 that required the operator to perform several adjustments to the radar receiver in order to suppress the image of the natural echo on the radar receiver in order to visually examine the IFF signal.[9]

By 1943, Donald Barchok filed a patent for a radar system using the acronym IFF in his text with only parenthetic explanation, indicating that this acronym had become an accepted term.[10] In 1945, Emile Labin and Edwin Turner filed patents for radar IFF systems where the outgoing radar signal and the transponder's reply signal could each be independently programmed with a binary codes by setting arrays of toggle switches; this allowed the IFF code to be varied from day to day or even hour to hour.[11][12]

Early 21st century systems


The United States and other NATO countries started using a system called Mark XII in the late twentieth century; Britain had not until then implemented an IFF system compatible with that standard, but then developed a program for a compatible system known as successor IFF (SIFF).[13]


Mode 1 – provides 2-digit octal mission code. (military only – can be changed in flight)[14]

Mode 2 – provides 4-digit octal unit code. (military only – usually can't be changed in flight. Some aircraft like the C-17 Block 17 and higher have the capability to do so)[14]

Mode 3/A – provides a 4-digit octal identification code for the aircraft, assigned by the air traffic controller. (military and civilian)[14]

Mode 4 – provides a 3-pulse reply, delay is based on the encrypted challenge. (military only)[14]

Mode 5 – provides a cryptographically secured version of Mode S and ADS-B GPS position. (military only)[14]


Modes 4 and 5 are designated for use by NATO forces.

See also


  1. ^ "Combat Identification IFF Systems" (PDF). Tellumat. Retrieved 31 May 2015. 
  2. ^ "MEADS System Gains Full Certification for Identifying Friend or Foe Aircraft". Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin. Retrieved 31 May 2015. 
  3. ^ "Identification Friend or Foe". Global Security. Retrieved 31 May 2015. 
  4. ^ "COMBAT IDENTIFICATION (IFF)". BAE Systems. Retrieved 31 May 2015. 
  5. ^ "Joint Publication (JP) 3-09, Joint Fire Support" (PDF). US DoD. 30 June 2010. p. III-20. Retrieved 27 December 2013. 
  6. ^ "The British invention of radar". Retrieved 2012-12-17. 
  7. ^ "General IFF principles". United States Fleet. 1945. Retrieved 2012-12-17. 
  8. ^ Lord Bowden (1985). "The story of IFF (identification friend or foe)". Physical Science, Measurement and Instrumentation, Management and Education - Reviews, IEE Proceedings A 132 (6). Retrieved 13 July 2014. 
  9. ^ George M. Charrier, Recognition System for Pulse Echo Radio Locators, U.S. Patent 2,453,970, granted Nov. 16, 1948.
  10. ^ Donald Barchok, Means for Synchronizing Detection and Interrogation Systems, U.S. Patent 2,515,178, granted July 18, 1950.
  11. ^ Emile Labin, Magnetostrictive Time-Delay Device, U.S. Patent 2,495,740, granted Jan. 31, 1950.
  12. ^ Edwin E. Turner, Coded Impulse Responsive Secret Signalling System, U.S. Patent 2,648,060, granted Aug. 4, 1953.
  13. ^ [2]
  14. ^ a b c d e NATO STANAG 4193

External links

  • The short film STAFF FILM REPORT 66-27A (1966) is available for free download at the Internet Archive