A recent experiment by the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command successfully provided so much data to crews that leaders now have to rethink the user interface to accommodate that amount of information.
In a June 6 experiment, AMC tested a new tactical data link system that Air Force leaders thought would provide airmen with increased situational awareness through high bandwidth, beyond line-of-sight communications capabilities and faster data processing speeds. Lt. Col. Bradley Rueter, AMC Capability Development branch chief, said the new capability is a “gamechanger.”
In the exercise, which simulated an airdrop of ground forces into a contested environment near Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, the Air Force changed how and how fast it was sending data to crews aboard two C-17s. AMC used commercial satellite communications, which according to Rueter, are “hundreds of times faster than what we traditionally use,” in addition to a “slightly different” protocol to send those messages.
The two planes were also outfitted with an upgraded computer with higher processing speeds. Overall, the new tech allowed for higher refresh rates to keep up with changes in the battlespace. The success of the mission will improve the effectiveness of joint operations in contested environments.
The experiment was successful overall, Reuter said. Crews’ situational awareness going into the area increased drastically. Usually, he said, crews check in with events in the battlespace by radio 15 to 20 minutes before entering the area. But with the new technology the service was testing on this mission, “these two crews were tracking it for hours beforehand,” Rueter said in an interview with C4ISRNET.
The crews with the new technology could track what the simulated adversary was trying to do to stop them, what friendly forces were doing and how the fight was progressing in “real time,” Rueter said.
“One individual who has flown this same profile about eight different times … said this was the most situational awareness he’s ever had,” Rueter said. “So what those two crews were able to know compared to the … other parts of the formation that didn’t have this new technology was huge.”
Removing the bandwidth impediment that had stymied communications in the past allowed the air service to identify new problems they hadn’t been able to identify before, said Rueter. With the bandwidth problem removed, the service learned that user interface used by crews wasn’t designed to handle as much information as was coming in at the new speeds.
“When you can put that much information - more information than we’ve ever seen before - quicker, that user interface requires some changes,” said Rueter.
This data transfer experiment puts the Air Force one step closer to the Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) push being made across all the services, an effort to link sensors and shooters across domains. In the next year, Rueter expects to see experiments with KC-135s, KC-46s and C-130s.
“Gen. [Maryanne] Miller (commander of AMC) likes to comment that ‘wherever there’s a fighter, there’s a tanker.’ If we are already there, we should be able to enjoy the benefits of this networked joint force, but we should also be contributing and sharing to that cooperative understanding as well,” Rueter said. “Some of our assets may just be there to pass information, some of them may be providing their own data from their own systems. We don’t really know what all that will look like, we know we’ve got assets in or near the edges of the battlespace.”
Next, Rueter said he expects to start “weaving” in larger Air Force initiatives into their testing, like the Advanced Battle Management System, the Air Force’s platform to accomplish Joint All-Domain Command and Control.
The 143rd Airlift Wing of the Rhode Island Air National Guard and 146th Airlift Wing of the California Air National Guard both played a “major role” in the experiment by sending their tactical data link systems to Joint Base Charleston and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, two bases where planes took off from for the experiment.
“The Total Force partnership is and will continue to be essential to the success of AMC’s journey in ABMS and JADC2 experimentation,” Rueter said.
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.