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This article was Originally Published on Mar 06, 2004 in Volume: 3  Issue: 1

Networking Air Power

Building on recent successes, the United States seeks to improve its mission re-direction capabilities. Combining technology and techniques improves mission planning and en route capabilities, which allows a completely flexible approach to target engagement.

By Anil R. Pustam

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Operation Enduring Freedom was the first conflict in which U.S. forces had access to continuous real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); indeed a wide array of intelligence-collecting assets was available. In Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), intelligence-gathering aircraft maintained a persistent airborne presence, providing targeting and other data to air and ground shooters through data links, either directly or indirectly via the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC). Impressive time-critical targeting capabilities were demonstrated that enabled elusive, small and mobile targets to be engaged.

B-1B bombers in Iraq were redirected from another mission to attack leadership sites in Baghdad, and did so within eight minutes of being re-tasked. Strikes against time critical targets involved new systems that were used operationally for the first time and in novel ways. For instance, Predator UAVs transferred targeting data to Lockheed Martin AC-130 gunships in real time. Although technologies used had largely been developed under separate programs with little or no priority given to interoperability, communications networks were, in many cases, successfully adapted to enable the integration of diverse systems.

Still the analysis and use of the large quantities of collected data needed to be improved, particularly their timely distribution to the shooters. And, interoperability problems did exist. Several programs are underway to address these requirements. Indeed a paradigm shift is discernible. Platforms, i.e. aircraft and vehicles, which used to be of prime importance for the Air Force and other services, are now being given much less emphasis, with priority instead being placed on data links and sensors.

Time-Critical Targeting

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is conducting the Affordable Moving Surface Target Engagement (AMSTE) program. This effort brings together standoff radar sensors and inexpensive, simple (seeker-less) weapons for long-ranged, all-weather, real-time operations against moving targets, with information being drawn from various Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) radars to update the weapons in-flight.

In the fall of 2002, combat aircraft demonstrated the ability to continuously update the aim point of a launched weapon. This was followed by the evaluation of the ability to track targets even after they had been hidden by vehicles, foliage and other terrain obstacles. In October 2003, a Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) equipped Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter, aided by two GMTI radars, was able to find, track and successfully attack a remotely controlled M-60 tank that was moving in the midst of other vehicles. Real-time two-way data-transfer between different sensor platforms was employed.

The other aircraft involved were Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-STARS) with the APY-7 radar system, which provided in-flight updates to the dropped JDAM, and a BAC 1-11 equipped with a JSF prototype AESA radar. Northrop Grumman has also demonstrated the ability to use a single GMTI radar (as opposed to two previously), with the required geo-location data completed by the company’s Raindrop targeting system.

The Navy has also been evaluating time-critical targeting in network-centric warfare. The service’s Hairy Buffalo program includes an airborne payload with operator workstations, wing mounted pods and a command, control, communications and computers (C4) shelter, the latter able to function as a ground station or on an aircraft or ship. The payload has an open systems architecture to permit the inclusion of various data transfer systems.

Hairy Buffalo can function as the focus of an airborne area network, control UAVs, perform command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and undertake precision targeting for combat aircraft. It has flown on the P-3 maritime patrol airframe but has been undergoing modification for installation onC-130 aircraft.

Under the Weapon Systems Open Architecture (WSOA) program, Boeing has demonstrated an Internet-like connection between a command and control aircraft and a combat aircraft that enables real-time (airborne) data transfer for the attack of time-critical targets. The company used an F-15E1 Advanced Technology Demonstrator and a Boeing 737 command and control (C2) configured avionics flying laboratory.

Aircrews were able to transfer and manipulate target imagery and other data in real-time and were able to re-plan already underway missions to prosecute developing threats. The F-15 crew received target images within 20 seconds. The Link-16 tactical data link was used. Boeing sees WSOA technology as providing a basis for future network-centric operations.

In early 2003, the company also demonstrated the ability to pass target imagery between a combat aircraft and a ground FAC via radio. During the demonstration, a FAC supplied the approximate target location to an F/A-18F1 Super Hornet using the advanced close air support system (ACASS). The radio was the ARC-2010 digital UHF system. The pilot obtained a target image via the Boeing Gateway to Airborne Tactical Data Exchange system, and this was  sent back to the FAC for approval and modification. The FAC and pilot then had the same image of the target.

In October, Boeing was contracted by the Navy to develop and demonstrate the Hornet Autonomous Real-time Targeting (HART) system, with a $121 million contract value. HART will allow the JDAM to have a real-time precision guidance capability; when deployed on the Navy’s F/A-18E/Fs, it will provide the first such capability for the service.

The advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) radar-equipped F/A-18E/F will acquire and designate a target. The aircraft will pass a target reference image to the JDAM that the weapon will compare with its own acquired image of the target, as it homes in on the target. Initial operational capability is planned for December 2007 with 6,000 kits expected to be built by around 2011.

In November, Boeing, under a company initiative, demonstrated the industry’s ability to field an operational network-centric capability in two or three years. The company linked a F/A-18, along with simulated aircraft, in a “networked virtual battle space.” The simulated aircraft were two F-15Cs, two F/A-18E/Fs and one F-15E. C4ISR systems and an Army Future Combat Systems (FCS) ground force element were also simulated.

Real-time data transfer between the systems was achieved, as the network was Internet-based. Simulated systems were able to identify a new (time-critical) “target,” share images and re-task the airborne F/A-18E/F, which was then able to successfully destroy the “target.” The F/A-18F was able to be re-tasked from its previous mission and find and simulate the destruction of the target. Additionally, F/A-18F bomb damage assessment (BDA) imagery was sent to the simulated AWACS aircraft for analysis. All this was achieved with minimal hardware adaptation.

Boeing foresees the incremental addition of network-centric capabilities to existing systems, with the capability demonstrated here being added as well. Further company network-centric capability demonstrations are planned.

Network-Centric Fighters

The next generation of fighters has been conceived with much greater network-centric capabilities. The F/A-22 is different from earlier combat aircraft in the level of data analysis that the pilot must perform. The data, drawn from the aircraft’s various sensors and other offboard sources, is now analyzed by aircraft systems and integrated to give the pilot a comprehensive view of the theater. Notably, whatever the tactical requirement, a prioritized threat list is always maintained.

The aircraft’s unique intraflight data link (IFDL), a low-probability intercept transmitter that allows information to be transferred between aircraft without the use of voice communications, allows

F/A-22s in a flight to share a common picture of the battlefield. F/A-22 test aircraft have been proving the capabilities of the IFDL.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) goes further than any previous combat type in being designed to operate in a network-centric environment.


The Air Force’s fleet of E-8 J-STARS, E-3 AWACS and RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic intelligence aircraft are planned to be replaced by a single platform, the E-10A Multi-Sensor Command and Control Aircraft (MC2A), which is based on the airframe of the Boeing 767-400ER. It is planned to have the E-10A enter service in 2012. Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Raytheon are to integrate the weapon systems on the aircraft.

Additionally, teams led by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have received three-month contracts to design a battle management C2 system for this type. The winner will be chosen next April. Systems and tactics are being demonstrated on the Boeing 707 Paul Revere testbed. The aircraft will be featured at the Joint Expeditionary Force Exercise 2004 next summer by the 8th Air Force. Boeing’s Connexion communications payload, now being installed on the Paul Revere, will enable broadband data transfer to and from the aircraft.

The Air Force Chief of Staff, General John Jumper has touted the “smart tanker” concept—a tanker aircraft that is also sensor-equipped to perform intelligence-collection. Smart transports could also emerge. Intelligence-gathering aircraft are also of interest to the other services. The Marines discovered that their Direct Air Support Center (Airborne) (DASC(A)) was extremely useful in OIF. The system coordinated helicopter and fixed-wing attack aircraft. The Army is pursuing the Airborne Common Sensor program.

Individual technologies that are driving development of new system capabilities include new advanced sensors such as the GMTI, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), AESA, hyperspectral sensors and laser radar.

Networks and Data Links

The CAOC was essential for the recent air actions, but the Air Force will eventually introduce a new advanced air operations center. Still, the extent of data analysis that can be done by airborne systems, as opposed to at ground air operations centers, remains to be determined.

The Air Force/Central Command Network-Centric Collaborative Targeting (NCCT) advanced concept technology demonstration (ACTD) aims to integrate ISR sensors (J-STARS, AWACS, Rivet Joint and others including UAVs) to produce a common picture of the air battle space with the focus including the timely detection of time-critical targets. NCCT seeks to obtain the synergistic sum of the individual system’s intelligence-gathering capabilities. It is not dissimilar in concept to the Navy’s Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) venture.

NCCT consists of the Network Communications Equipment wideband radio; the NCCT Network Controller; the central computer; and the Platform Interface Module (PIM), which makes aircraft sensor information usable by the network. The network aims to focus various available sensors on specific targets as they develop. L-3 ComCept is the prime contractor; the demonstration is expected to be completed in 2005.

Data links have already been identified as a major current focus. The DoD wants all combat aircraft to have the Link 16 data link by 2010. The Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) is being developed for future U.S. manned and unmanned aircraft. The Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) is an extremely versatile next generation radio system for the aircraft and other equipment of the services.

Rockwell Collins has been contracted under the Weapons Data Link Architecture program to produce miniature data links to provide Air Force smart munitions with in-flight target update information; the terminal set is to fit in the 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb (SDB), which may conceivably also function as a communications node. The DoD is to analyze other weapons that could receive data links.

Re-Direct for the Kill

The ability to transfer information from any sensor in theater to any shooter, and in time for the prosecution of time-critical targets, is an ambitious goal. But new technologies and operating concepts are going a long way to making it a reality.

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