Air Force, Navy to Link Fighter Jets and Ships for Air-Sea Battle

The Air Force and Navy will be joining forces under a new concept for fighting future wars called Air-Sea Battle. Both services will seek to combine their high-tech weaponry in an effort to counter well-armed adversaries.

Much attention has been paid to what new hardware the services might buy as part of the Air-Sea Battle strategy. But an even more important issue is how current weapon systems that were not designed to work together will be able to "talk" to each other in an integrated network, Lt. Gen. Herbert J. Carlisle, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements, Air Force headquarters, said Feb. 28.

“We have to have a fused system capability and have them networked and integrated across the force,” he said at an Air Force Association meeting in Washington, D.C. “To me, that’s as important on a 5th-generation fighter as anything.”

Under Air-Sea Battle, for example, it would be conceivable to have an Air Force F-22 air-superiority fighter interacting with a Navy submarine in preparation for a Tomahawk missile strike. But the F-22, like other major weapon systems in the U.S. inventory, was not designed for security reasons to be interoperable with other aircraft, let alone Navy ships.

In a combat theater where electronic and cyber-warfare might occur, as it would be in a hypothetical conflict with China, linking fighter jets with ground and naval forces ramps up the risk of intrusion, Carlisle said.

“What’s counterintuitive from an electronic warfare perspective is that mesh that goes over the battlefield that allows us to get data from multiple sources, crosscheck and compare that data between systems and say ‘That’s bogus information but I have other nodes that confirm the target,'” Carlisle said.

The Air Force and Navy will have to weigh that risk against the need for an advanced data link system. The goal is to transmit data among naval, air and land forces in real time over huge areas, but many details remain to be worked out, Carlisle said.

“There is a discussion between us [the Air Force] and our Navy brethren right now about how to get to that next level where there is a [radio] waveform with a low probability of detection and interception,” Carlisle said. “We’re not there yet.” He pointed out that neither the F-22 nor the F-35 can communicate with Navy systems in real time.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is equipped with a multi-function advanced data link, or MADL, under development by Harris Corp. The system was designed to securely link F-35s, but is being developed to possibly connect the entire stealth fleet, according to the Harris website.

The F-22 has a similar system called the intraflight data link, or IFDL, that only links those aircraft. Using “gateway” communications systems, the Air Force has been able to punch holes in those secure connections to allow the F-22 to communicate with other systems aboard Navy submarines and even missiles, Carlisle said.

He gave an example of a submarine that launched two Tomahawk missiles in conjunction with a flight of two F-22s. Using a system called the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, the aircraft would be able to penetrate denied airspace “with a sensor suite that can geo-locate that target and through the gateway network, can go back and update those tomahawks in route to the target,” Carlisle said.

BACN and similar “gateway” programs will provide an integrated battle network in the short term, he said. In the long term, both the Navy and Air Force are working to develop a force-wide secure network that could be used is support of special operations forces penetrating deep into hostile territory.

“Now you have two stealth platforms  a submarine and an F-22 communicating with naval ordnance,” he said. “The F-22 is like a Hoover vacuum, it sucks up such an incredible amount of information.”

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