Air Force Shapes a New Network in the Sky

July 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

New technologies allow different platforms to cooperate, share data.

The U.S. Air Force is moving its communications and command and control systems to an on-demand, Internet-based model. This will consist of wired and wireless data pipes connecting ground installations, aircraft and satellites in a seamless architecture. However, while many parts of this structure are in place, the service still faces the challenge of establishing and managing what will become a massive system of systems.

As the U.S. Defense Department approaches its goal of a network-centric joint force, issues such as interoperability and bandwidth allocation must be addressed lest they impede progress. The services are using their research and acquisition centers to develop and procure technologies that enhance joint operations by sharing data among dissimilar platforms and that intelligently use radio and Internet bandwidth.

One such organization is the Air Force’s Electronics Systems Center (ESC), Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts. According to Maj. Gen. Craig P. Weston, USAF, vice commander, ESC, the center is spearheading efforts to create a completely Web-based force, “not only in business operations, but also combat operations. Quite simply, everything that you can do on the Internet today, we’d like to do that in a custom fashion by having our own Internet for combat operations in which we can rapidly share information and act on it,” he explains.

But it must be achieved quickly, avoiding the eight- to 10-year development times common to military procurements. The general notes that this can be achieved by incrementally delivering 50-percent or 60-percent solutions to provide a foundation that can be built upon over months and years.

Both of these efforts—becoming Web-based and providing faster delivery of Internet-based solutions—are attempts to form capabilities rapidly to meet new, emerging conflict situations and adversaries. Because future threats and battle scenarios largely remain unpredictable, the Air Force is developing agile systems that can link different platforms in a plug-and-play fashion to meet specific mission requirements.

For example, Gen. Weston notes that, during operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, U.S. special forces and Air Force tactical air control parties used laser range finders to geolocate targets. The range finders were connected to global positioning satellites, permitting the transmission of precise target coordinates to 50-year-old B-52 bombers circling over the battlefield. Those aircraft then entered the data into precision-guided weapons that were dropped on Taliban and al-Qaida forces. “Who would have thought five years ago that we would be using that combination of new and legacy platforms to go after terrorists?” he says.

Gen. Weston sees the acquisition of Web-based systems as a growing trend. He notes that the service is moving away from point-to-point data exchanges between specific platforms over dedicated communications links to e-mail addressable information simultaneously broadcast over multiple media across an entire network.

Another shift involves lessening the reliance on unique intelligence and targeting data from specific platforms and individual decision makers in favor of a common virtual repository accessible to all authorized personnel.

The Air Force also is trying to replace voice and manual transcription of intelligence targeting data in combat operations. “What we want is a hands-off electronic transfer of data from machine to machine, which will ensure that it is more accurate. It will certainly be a lot faster than somebody having to repeat a set of GPS [global positioning system] coordinates three times over the radio,” the general says. A tactical air control party recently demonstrated this capability by communicating with an F-15E, which then dropped a precision-guided weapon on a target. This automated approach has been tested with B-52 and AC-130 aircraft as well.

Machine-to-machine communications changes business operations as the service seeks to move from human intermediaries to self-service e-business applications. Such features allow personnel and equipment to be tracked automatically. Gen. Weston notes that, instead of tracking a part across several separate databases as it leaves its source and travels to an operational theater, all of these systems can be linked for continuous tracking. This approach is similar to the United Parcel Service’s tracking network, which permits users to locate packages anywhere in its system. “We want to be able to link our databases together so we can do exactly the same thing on parts, fuel and even people as they move from the continental United States to overseas,” he says.

Eliminating paper transactions is another ESC objective. “You can appreciate the update speed and the frequency by which we can push information to people if we don’t rely on paper,” Gen. Weston observes. The service uses technical order documents to maintain its equipment. Programs being put in place will allow technical orders to be recorded electronically and stored in a central database. The goal is to permit flight-line personnel to access technical orders from their desktop computers and load them onto personal digital assistants (PDAs). If a part is needed, it can be noted on a PDA and information loaded into a desktop unit to place an order.

The ESC also is addressing bandwidth needs for the Air Force’s network-centric goals. The center is promoting designs for applications that are bandwidth-tolerant and bandwidth-smart. For example, if a communications link has a large throughput, then information can be extracted at a high data rate. But, if a user has a low-bandwidth connection, the application must be able to identify this and extract only the essential information the user requested. The general compares this with Web surfing using a 56-kilobyte modem. Because of the slow data rate, the user may decide to access text only instead of images. In a similar fashion, the ESC is trying to develop applications that can be tailored to the available bandwidth.

The center is proposing a process that specifies the optimal communication requirements for systems as they are fielded. For example, an application may be color coded, ranging from platinum to bronze. Bases in the continental United States with Global Information Grid (GIG) communications would have platinum-level service because of the large data pipes. But an austere forward base may have only silver- or bronze-level service because it relies wholly on satellite communications for reach-back to the United States.

Gen. Weston says this is similar to the system requirements of commercial software. To meet these requirements, the Air Force is developing systems that can be modified to offer varying capability levels, depending on available bandwidth. “We’d like to characterize our communications networks and our infostructure, both within the United States and overseas, so that we know the level of service each of those links is giving us. The users of those links can then select how to operate, knowing the level of service they’re being provided,” he offers.

The ESC is taking a multilevel approach to solving interoperability issues. Besides providing connectivity between different platforms within the Air Force, efforts to speed communications between other services and coalition partners are underway. Gen. Weston notes that the Defense Department is developing a common mission-planning system for use by Air Force, U.S. Army and U.S. Navy airborne platforms. Each service currently relies on a stovepiped mission-planning system. The new joint mission-planning technology serves as a route planner for military aircraft missions. It operates in the same manner as existing systems but reduces the number of unique mission-planning hardware suites.

Another new initiative is the distributed common groundstation (DCGS). The Army, Navy and Air Force each will deploy its own version of the groundstations to gather intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data. The ESC has reached an agreement with the Army and Navy to provide a common backbone infrastructure for the DCGS. The general observes that the services will be able to plug common or unique applications into the backbone to accomplish missions such as carrier, air and air assault operations.

An ongoing challenge for the Air Force is connecting its legacy systems. Battlefield universal gateway equipment (BUG-E) is a new technology designed to speed this process. BUG-E is used to link dissimilar networks so they can share data. For example, an F-16 equipped with Link 16 and an A-10 close-support aircraft using the situational awareness datalink (SADL) cannot normally share information. BUG-E can connect both aircraft. SADL permits aircraft to interoperate with Army units by tapping into the Army Common Ground Picture, which provides the locations of all friendly ground units in the theater. By linking the A-10 SADL network through the BUG-E gateway to the F-16’s Link 16 system, F-16s providing close air support will be able to access the location of Army units on the battlefield. 

The Air Force is working with the Army to exchange blue force tracking information, which provides the location of all joint and coalition ground, air and maritime forces in a theater of operations. The general notes that Extensible Markup Language (XTML) will translate data from Army and Air Force databases for situational awareness information. Because of the difficulties involved in  operating stovepiped systems seamlessly, he believes that the initial offering may be only a 50-percent solution. However, XTML will serve as a bridge between these legacy systems and will lay the groundwork for further improvements.

As the tip of the spear for many Air Force technology development programs, the ESC faces a number of challenges. The Air Force is finding it difficult to develop cost-effective tests to debug distributed networks as complex systems of systems are linked, Gen. Weston explains. He notes that, when the theater battle management core system—the software driving the Air Operations Center’s 24-hour air tasking and order planning—was fielded in 1999 and 2000, it required extensive operational tests. This evaluation took several weeks and required hundreds of operators.

“You can imagine the resource consumption of finding close to 1,000 Army, Navy and Air Force personnel to sit down for two weeks to run an operational test,” he says. To alleviate the time and expense of these tests, the service is trying to develop automated systems such as automatic keyboard tappers to reduce personnel requirements.

But managing this wireless Web presents its own difficulties. The general observes that the service’s vision presumes that the infostructure and bandwidth are there. But a great deal of work is necessary to create that framework, he says. The ESC is in the early stages of creating an airborne network management group to coordinate system administration. It will examine a variety of applications such as wideband and narrowband airborne communications links. Satellite communications and links to the ground information infrastructure will be added later. But many questions remain. “How do we make that spectrum of networks from space to air to ground, how do we make it seamless, and how do we manage it as a network?” he asks.

For example, in Link 16 networks, each platform is assigned time slots in the bandwidth on a recurring basis using time division multiplexing. Every time the Air Force goes to war, a new network must be designed for every aircraft and squadron deployed. If dissimilar platforms—such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft; fighters; and bombers—are added to the mix, then the networks must be designed so that each type can have its own time slot. Although automated tools exist to ease this workload, it is still a major network management task, the general explains.

But the service’s new joint requirements vastly exacerbate this complexity. “Imagine multiplying that by several orders of magnitude as you try to do that across all three services and across space, air and ground sets of networks. It’s a huge challenge that the Defense Department is just now beginning to appreciate as we talk about the GIG and how we manage that for combat operations, which is where it’s really important,” he says.

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