WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is preparing an experiment it hopes will link the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, the first in a series of experiments that service acquisition head Will Roper has dubbed “connect-a-thons.”
The experiments are to happen every four months, starting in December. The goal is to identify a fleet of aircraft with a communications issue, invite voices from inside and outside the Pentagon to offer solutions, and then test those offerings in a live experiment.
“We’re making it up as we go, right? There’s never been anything like this,” Roper said at a breakfast hosted by the Defense Writers Group. “We need a way for people to propose connections and get into the pipeline. So I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it ends up being like a pitch day ... having a proposal process where we review the maturity of the tech versus the benefit to the war fighter. We would do the former, our operators would do the latter."
“And what I love about this is it’s kind of a competition within the joint force," he added. "We’re going to be looking for the fast movers to volunteer, then we’ll be looking at the fast followers.”
The first event, hosted by North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, will feature an attempt to allow the F-22 and F-35 to share battlespace — a long-sought capability.
The F-22 was built with an older data link that can’t match up with the Multifunction Advanced Data Link, or MADL, system used on the newer F-35; while the F-35 can receive data through Link 16, it can’t share the data back — a key capability given the envisioned role of the F-35 as a major sensor for the future Air Force.
For the test, the service will use what Roper called a “Babel Fish-like translator” under the working name of GatewayOne to serve as a “universal translator” for the two jets. The first test, in December, will feature the equipment on a pole on a test range, with the jets pinging their information back and forth from that fixed location.
Should that system work well, in four months Roper plans to put GatewayOne onto a Valkyrie drone, a system designed by Kratos to be cheap enough to be disposable in a battlefield situation. It’s not the first time a drone has been used as a link between the two fighters: In 2017, Northrop Grumman pitched its Global Hawk unmanned system, equipped with a new radio, to act as a translator between the aircraft.
Future connect-a-thons currently planned include linking SpaceX’s Starlink satellites with KC-135 aerial refueling aircraft in an effort to show commercial communications can work with military aircraft; Roper said the KC-135 community volunteered because the tanker aircraft is perpetually seeking more bandwidth.
Roper also expects the F-16 community — which he called “very innovative, agile operators” who understand they need to keep an aging plane relevant — to “sign up wholesale” for tests in the future.
The acquisitions chief said he is committed to keeping the four-month schedule going, in part because it means if the technology isn’t satisfactory, the service will know quickly and be able to move onto something else.
“The good news about that is [Congress and the Pentagon] don’t really have to believe us for very long. Just let us get through a few connect-a-thon cycles,” Roper said. “And if we’re failing miserably, then that should tell you something about the future of the program.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.