Air Force Flies Into Network-Centric Airspace

February 2005
By Robert K. Ackerman
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A U.S. Air Force F-16 drops flares as it patrols the skies over Iraq. New sensors, better datalinks and more bandwidth are turning individual aircraft into major nodes in an all-encompassing battlespace network. 

Every aircraft a communicator in future air warfare.

The U.S. Air Force is building on new capabilities tested in Afghanistan and Iraq with a push for networked operations that exceeds many of the dreams of air combat planners of only a few years ago. New warfighting technologies in the pipeline for years are being melded with advanced sensors, data processing and information systems to produce a networked force that increasingly resembles a multicellular organism working to be the dominant life form in its environment.

During the Cold War, U.S. Air Force doctrine of well-trained self-reliant pilots focusing on mission goals contrasted sharply with that of the Warsaw Pact, which was built around central control of air assets for virtually all aspects of air combat from the moment an aircraft’s wheels left the ground. Even though the Cold War is a fading memory, the self-reliance of U.S. pilots remains a cornerstone of air doctrine. However, the U.S. Air Force is becoming networked in a way that would turn Red Army flight controllers green with envy.

This networking is designed to give the pilot more power to focus on primary duties instead of sensor, weapon and mission activities. Improved datalinks will move information directly from other aircraft and sensors to airborne weapon systems. All assets, including large noncombat platforms, will serve as key nodes in this network. And, the long-sought synergy of human and machine will move closer to reality with real-time interaction between airborne pilots and nearby unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The Air Force transition to network-centric operations comprises a broad range of programs with complex interrelationships, explains Lt. Gen. William T. “Tom” Hobbins, USAF, deputy chief of staff for warfighting integration. While each of these programs represents improvements in performance and capability, these network-centric pieces must fit properly for the Air Force to realize their advantages, he emphasizes. And, they each pose their own individual challenges to Air Force warfighting integrators.

The Defense Department-mandated transition from the Internet protocol (IP) IPv4 to IPv6 represents a technological challenge that affects almost everything the Air Force does, the general observes. The Air Force has established an IPv6 office within the Air Force Communications Agency to lead this migration effort for the service. This office complements the effort that is being led by the Defense Department. The Air Force Communications Agency has the ability to dynamically analyze a network for flaws such as bottlenecks, so the agency can model IPv6 technology in a network realm to predict the impact on the process of transitioning to that new protocol.

The Air Force has created an airborne network that will extend to the defensewide Global Information Grid (GIG). Establishing this network will involve adding considerably to some 700 existing platforms in a Link-16 environment.

Incorporating the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) will allow the Air Force to become IP based, Gen. Hobbins says. He describes it as one of the three most important elements to achieve network-centric operations—the other two being the ability to share data and to provide assured service. With Link-16 being one of the key waveforms in JTRS, the airborne network will allow the Air Force to transition to an IP environment in the air and connect to the GIG across the globe.

Further ahead in this transition, the Air Force will implement its family of advanced beyond-line-of-sight terminals (FAB-T), which will provide satellite connectivity, and a version of the multipurpose common datalink. Large command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) aircraft will be able to receive 274 megabits per second of data, and this common datalink also will permit them to communicate with JTRS and Link-16.

“Now you have built a global information grid that has all the elements of moving data very quickly from ground to air to space—seamlessly,” the general observes looking ahead. “It will be a self-forming, self-healing global information grid.”

A B-2 bomber releases its load of munitions during a bombing run. In the near future, en route bombers carrying precision guided munitions will be able to receive retargeting information that directs them to a new mission while automatically reprogramming their munitions.
The general cites several challenges that must be overcome to enable this network to function properly. These include determining how to migrate waveforms onto radio platforms, how to integrate these platforms, how to format data according to standards, where data will be deposited and how to manage the network in terms of determining the size of the pipe that transmits the information versus the user’s requirement.

Platform integration can be complicated, and Gen. Hobbins cites the JTRS radio as an example. Connecting the new joint tactical radio to an aircraft antenna will enable the user to receive networked information, but that user cannot put that networked information on aircraft legacy displays without major hardware changes to the vehicle’s wiring and the displays. However, a small personal data assistant mounted on the pilot’s leg can serve as the genesis of a desktop that can be plugged directly into the radio. This would create an IP radio without the cost of refurbishing the aircraft, the general notes.

But, newer aircraft may mandate a higher level of integration. This might involve embedding advanced wiring and sensors that would automatically send information through the network as they present it to the pilot in the cockpit.

Of course these challenges become even greater when applied to a coalition environment. Gen. Hobbins notes that the Air Force also must determine how it is going to work its targeting tools, applications and mining agents in a collaborative environment.

The Air Force is developing the Theater Battle Operations Network Environment, or T-BONE. This is the follow-on core system in the Air Force’s air and space operations centers used to build and execute an air campaign plan. T-BONE will put all material on a single database and will migrate the data from Unix to a PC base. The data will be time-stamped and will have historical geospatial data for establishing coordinates. That single database will be aligned with U.S. message-text format major columnar headings, and this will allow allies—who have built to the same major headings—to access the data repository.

The JTRS radio has a wideband network as one of its waveforms, and this network will allow the rapid movement of voice, IP, imagery and other media on various frequency spectra with encryption, if necessary. A new version of this wideband network called tactical targeting network technology, or TTNT, has just been tested. It permits a limited wideband network with less than 100 participants to be extended to three times as many customers at greater distances. And, TTNT allows data to be transmitted at an average of 1.7 megabits per second from a platform moving at up to 4,000 knots, as opposed to a maximum speed of 900 knots on the conventional network. Gen. Hobbins notes that this ability to transmit data at high vehicle speeds is important for sensor-equipped missiles. The Air Force will continue to develop this waveform, which already has been tested successfully, as part of JTRS.

The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq served as excellent proving grounds for many new capabilities. However, some of these capabilities only scratched the surface of their potential, and some of the technology fixes were less than ideal.

Gen. Hobbins relates that the Air Force used primitive machine-to-machine chat effectively for many operational aspects, but it must be improved for future operations. Battle damage assessment must be more timely with better verification sources.

The Roll-On Beyond-Line-of-Sight Enhancement (ROBE) equipment provided a datalink capability for larger airborne platforms such as tankers (see page 49). Satellite links proved invaluable but difficult for aircraft, so the Air Force used systems called FacePods on 20 aircraft. Consisting of Iridium satellite communications in pods, these systems permitted pilots to talk to ground personnel via telephone links in beyond-line-of-sight situations. These systems are being fielded now.

Other problems that arose include misidentified targets, loss of or lack of situational awareness, and insufficient communications or datalinks. Not all aircraft are datalink capable, the general notes. Recent exercises with the U.S. Army involved work to improve common situational awareness between the two services. One goal is to improve information exchange between the Air Force and Army Patriot missile batteries so that the two services see the same picture. Blue Force Tracking also is helping the Air Force identify ground targets, and work continues to improve situational awareness over the next hill. Link-16 will help with that problem, and interoperability will improve when both services deploy JTRS.

The general notes that the Air Force brings to battle sensors that deal with information operations and automatic targeting and tracking. It has built a theaterwide command and control ability to share instantaneous signals intelligence among large aircraft. These aircraft can geolocate a specific location on Earth and reach out and share data within seconds with other receivers to focus their sensors on the same spot. Smart data mining agents will help overlay data on intelligence information to determine any changes. However, these items run on different databases with varying security levels. So, sharing and exchanging become challenging, especially for ensuring that command centers can get all of the information seamlessly and horizontally, the general observes. The goal is to be able to share information without sharing aspects such as its origin and other classification characteristics.

The Air Force is looking at combining information from multiple intelligence sources such as tactical, operational and national assets to geolocate a target on the Earth. Gen. Hobbins offers that this effort, which is still in the test phase, will require tying the receiver sites together and ensuring that the sites can use smart intelligent agents for sorting through massive amounts of data for relay. A user dealing with imagery might be sorting through hundreds of images at once to find a specific set of pixels. A signals intelligence customer might be receiving different forms of this intelligence on varying types of systems that must be overlapped. Working with electronics intelligence might require sorting through reams of data that must match the other two types of intelligence.

For example, someone searching for a particular type of vehicle might be cued to its presence by a signal identifiable as coming from a radio that is unique to that vehicle. Or, signals intelligence could confirm the presence of a vehicle detected by imagery.

The T-BONE system also can play a role in this arena. An aircraft carrying a low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night (LANTIRN) pod might receive a message via T-BONE describing a target that has just been struck a few miles away from the aircraft’s position. The message would direct the aircraft to slew the LANTIRN sensor in the direction of the target to provide battle damage assessment and, if necessary, strike the target again. This message would go directly to the sensor to re-task it, and its information would be delivered directly to the shooter.

Much of the Air Force’s sensor network activity involves reducing the time for the sensor to find the target. One way is network-centric collaborative targeting, which would network large aircraft. For example, one such aircraft might receive a signal from the ground that generates an error ellipse 200 miles long and 10 miles wide. However, by sharing this with other sensors observing the same piece of information, that error ellipse can be honed to less than 50 meters in fewer than two minutes. The result is accurate coordinates that can be sent to the shooter for a good target strike.

Link-16 also will provide automatic mission data to the network. When a pilot strikes a target with a missile or bomb, the aircraft’s Link-16 system automatically will notify the air operations center of the weapon launch and provide the coordinates of the release point and the intended target.

An Air Force Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) touches down on a runway. Not only are new sensors dramatically increasing UAV mission capabilities, but future multiplexing technologies ultimately may allow one person to launch, operate and retrieve four UAVs simultaneously. 
Unmanned aerial vehicles will be providing more information to pilots. And, those pilots will be transmitting pictures directly to ground personnel. This will remove the need for the pilot to verbally describe a target to a ground controller.

“We don’t want to be so [information technology] IT-based that we forget about who the customer is—it’s the warfighter,” the general declares. “So, we want to focus on the airman, we want to focus on the commander, and that is basically where we are going.”

The most important C4ISR technologies on the Air Force’s wish list involve JTRS and IP connectivity. “We need to capitalize on industry’s expertise in the IP networking business, on how they manage their networks and enterprise information management,” the general says.

New technologies and methodologies will be needed to enable more information to flow on less bandwidth, he adds. “We cannot be bandwidth hogs.”

 Networks and applications must be made smarter, which touches on the need for smart intelligent agents. They would be especially useful in mobile wireless environments with limited bandwidth, Gen. Hobbins notes.

Coalition information sharing in a network-centric environment is vital. The Adaptive Joint Communications Node, which will allow dissemination of red intelligence resources while processing and disseminating blue intelligence communications, is important. Gen. Hobbins cites the need for multiplexing, especially for controlling multiple UAVs with one operator. “We would like to launch four UAVs from one location using one person,” he states.

Reorganizing Operational Support for the Warfighter

In a major overhaul, the U.S. Air Force is consolidating three separate information-related organizations into one organization to handle what used to be known as the common information community. These three organizations—CIO (chief information officer), ILC (communications operations) and XI (warfighting integration)—originally were established as separate entities, explains Lt. Gen. William T. Hobbins, USAF, deputy chief of staff for warfighting integration.

“These three organizations came down successful paths to this point,” the general states, “but now our senior leaders see great potential, great synergy, in combining the three into one, so that we can be working together on how operational support comes to the warfighter.”

The XI was in charge of integration, the CIO office handled information exchanges, and day-to-day communications fell to the ILC. Where keeping these organizations separate had been thought to be the most efficient way of exploiting their capabilities, Air Force leadership now believes that they will perform better consolidated under a three-star general, Gen. Hobbins relates. This is especially true for functional disciplines such as logistics, finance and personnel.

The reconfiguration should take place some time in the spring.


Web Resources
Air Force Communications Agency:
Air Force Electronic Systems Center:
Joint Tactical Radio System Program: