Air Force 2013 Budget Seeks Funds for New Communications Network

1/17/2012
By Stew Magnuson

The Air Force will request funding in the 2013 budget to ramp up the development of an ad hoc network that would be deployed in the event that an adversary denies access to communications satellites.
 
The Joint Aerial Layer Network would be a series of nodes aboard manned and unmanned aircraft that could send or receive sensor data and communications from any number of platforms, said Col. Douglas Hagen, chief of command and control networking at Air Force headquarters.
 
Hagen confirmed that there was money in the 2013 budget request to move forward with acquiring the needed technologies, he said Jan. 17 at a Precision Strike Association meeting in Arlington, Va.
Military officials have been tightlipped about winners and losers ahead of the release of the fiscal year 2013 budget proposal, which is due in the first week of February.
 
The network would “augment” space-based communications satellites, not replace them, Hagen stressed. It is envisioned for scenarios where an adversary has jammed or denied access to satellite links.
 
“It does not replace space. It cannot do that,” Hagen said. The military operates several fleets of communications satellites, and also leases, or buys on the spot market, capacity from commercial operators. Studies have shown that adversaries could knock out or degrade these vital links, he said. The aerial system could not duplicate the capacity of all these spacecraft, he added.
 
The “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” military strategy calls for renewed investment in anti-access capabilities, including adversaries' air defenses. During the past decade, the U.S. military has operated in Afghanistan and Iraq where they could fly unhindered by anti-aircraft weapons. Space, meanwhile, has been called an Achilles’ heel. The U.S. military depends heavily on space-based communications and GPS for command and control of many of its weapon systems. 
 
The new system would allow for virtually any aircraft flying over contested airspace to serve as a backup communications node. Hagen showed an illustration that included Predator drones, fighter jets, transport aircraft and bombers, including B-52s. The Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, and the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, J-STARS, would also be in the mix. Generally, the smaller the platform, the less space there would be for the communications node, and the less data throughput there would be, he said. The new Air Force refueling tanker could also carry the system and would have plenty of space to carry a high capacity node, he said.
 
One industry source, who did not wish to be named, said the Joint Aerial Layer Network is an old concept that has languished for at least a decade. There have been at least four studies dating back to 2000, for this “network-centric” solution to communicating in the battlefield.
 
He expressed disappointment that the system will be based on the Link-16, a secure, jam-resistant tactical data exchange network, which he said was based on 1970s technology.
 
Industry has been ready to move forward with this concept for quite some time, and the technology is mature, he maintained.
 
“It’s not a technology issue, it’s a cultural issue,” he said. The military in the past has been afraid of the cost, he added.

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Infotech, Space

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