Air Force F-22s, F-35s and Reaper drones all shared targeting data in real time across a secure, radio-enabled secure RF datalink, bringing the concept of an interwoven network of “meshed” nodes closer to operational reality.

While historically able to perform some radio communications and of course share information through ground-based command and control, some existing datalinks and radio communication systems can experience latency challenges regarding the speed of information flow as well as data processing impediments when it comes to the need to organize, analyze and transmit crucial incoming targeting data. 

Paradigm-Changing War Communications

Now, F-22 to F-35 to MQ-9 Reaper drone real-time information sharing, targeting cooperation, information processing and operational connectivity without needing to incorporate ground-based command and control, represents paradigm-changing possibilities for modern warfare.

U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper Drone

An MQ-9 Reaper, assigned to the 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron, lands at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska in support of Northern Edge 2021, May 3, 2021. Northern Edge 21 is a U.S. Indo-Pacific Command-sponsored, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces led, U.S.-only joint field training exercise focused on joint task force tactical and operational level requirements and transformation initiatives. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Beaux Hebert)

Some of the most recent technical innovations, such as Northrop Grumman’s Freedom 550 software programmable radio, are built with a specific intent to preserve information stability and security. 

Stealthy 5th-Generation platforms, for example, can give away their location by sending a large volume of multi-frequency data transmission. The larger an electronic signature, emission or transmission, the more detectable it may be to an enemy. The challenge is to enable connectivity while simultaneously maintaining “stealth mode.”

Northrop Grumman is now testing a “radio translator” engineered to connect an F-22 datalink called Interflight Datalink with an F-35 datalink called Multi-Function Advanced Datalink called MADL.

“We are working on a demonstrator using a radio as a translator to convert data sent from and F-35 to an F-22 in a stealthy manner. It involves using software-defined radio hardware and software and antennas,” Colin Phan, the director of strategy and tech communications for Northrop Grumman, told the National Interest in an interview.

U.S. Air Force F-35

An F-35 Lightning II from the 53rd Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., taxis on a runway at exercise Northern Edge 21. Approximately 15,000 U.S. service members participated in the joint training exercise hosted by U.S. Pacific Air Forces May 3-14, 2021, on and above the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, the Gulf of Alaska, and temporary maritime activities area. (U.S. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Savanah Bray)

Multi-Domain Combat Preparation  

The communications and targeting breakthrough was all part of an ambitious combat preparation exercise in Alaska called Northern Edge wherein numerous combat assets operated in high-end mock-combat wargames to conduct multi-domain missions against extremely sophisticated, high-end adversary forces. 

The in-flight, real time 5th-Gen to 5th-Gen to Drone connectivity amid combat operations is an extremely significant development, as it is the kind of thing which offers what could be called a foundational pillar in the Pentagon’s move toward its new integrated, multi-domain Joint All Domain Command and Control program. 

It is an ambitious and extremely impactful concept, the idea of each warfare platform such as drones, cargo planes, fighter jets and even ground forces and ships at sea functioning as communications “nodes” able to network data across the force in seconds. 

This speeds up a warfare decision-making cycle to conduct operations “at speed,” stay in front of an enemy and exponentially reduce sensor to shooter time.

JADAC2 Information-Driven Warfare

JADC2 is working to ensure resilient connectivity are part of a larger Air Force strategic shift toward dispersed, better networked, information driven warfare against a technically advanced adversary.  

U.S. Air Force Air Mobility Commander Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost explained this recently in an interesting discussion with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. 

She referred to JADC2 in the context of transitioning the Air Mobility and transport force more fully into an integrated element of an overall joint, multi-domain attack force. Bringing this to an operational reality, Van Ovost explained, means increased experimentation, perhaps even the kind of thing being done at Northern Edge with Freedom 550 and advanced secure networking. 

JADC2

A graphic illustrating the intended coverage of the JADC2 concept. (Graphic: US DoD)

“We have to change the way we think about what we do. We are shifting our focus to the high-end fight. It is not enough to just bring mobility capacity but we also want to bring more to the joint force. We want to be ready and relevant for the future. We need time and capacity to experiment and think outside of the box,” Van Ovost said. 

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Referring to these newer kinds of network-enabling innovations in terms of a “data-driven-battlespace,” Phan explained that the Freedom 550 radio gateway-enabled data “translator” has been engineered with a specific mind to bringing JADC2 to operational reality.

“What we're all talking about under the JADC2 umbrella is ensuring that resilient, scalable networks are enabled to read, share and process data at the edge of combat. This is key to providing our customers with a real-time decision-making capability to address the near peer threat and maintain decision superiority,” Phan said.

Even if an F-22 and F-35 are able to share information two-ways in combat across radio datalinks and other innovations to pass targeting data, conduct surveillance and even execute attacks, there is still the problem of detectability.

Solving for Detectability

As stealth platforms, the intent is to of course not be detected, yet radio frequencies emit an electronic signature which, if even reasonably secure, can emit a potentially detectable RF signal. 

Radio interference, jamming attempts and EW are basically considered as a “given” in any kind of future warfare scenario, therefore introducing the question as to whether there can be some kind of data connectivity that is less detectable to an enemy such that 5th-Generation aircraft can sustain its stealthy characteristics.

Northrop Grumman is now testing the Freedom 550 radio engineered to preserve stealth mode through integrated software-defined radio. 

It works by sending IP packets of data through waveforms to transmit combat-relevant information. Phan explained that there can be one multi-function box that does as many as twenty-five different functions. Stealth mode is sustained, Phan explained, by using a smaller number of modules to connect the two data links together through a converter. 

Fewer modules help preserve stealthy communications by virtue of decreasing the emissions of an omnidirectional antenna which is more likely to be detected. The broader the signal and the wider the emission, the larger the potentially detectable electronic signature, something which can of course present a risk of being detected.

In recent years, the Air Force has already succeeded in engineering a two-way connectivity exchange between F-35 jets and F-22 jets through LINK 16, however the existing datalink does not enable stealth mode. The Freedom 550 system, by contrast, does.

Described as a net-centric gateway prototype, Northrop’s Freedom 550 gateway technology is being developed to support the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, a coordinated series of networked combat nodes intended to form “meshed” or interconnected information exchange in combat. 

The ABMS program, intended to support JADC2, is to no longer restrict communications to strictly linear or stovepiped communications channels but rather enable broader functional connectivity to connect weapons and sensors, share surveillance and targeting data across multiple echelons and combat platforms simultaneously.

“I can share data back to the Joint Force. We are essentially picking up data and sharing that data back and forth with Naval things like Air and Missile Defense, ongoing fires and then we can reverse to where you can put data back into it,” Phan said.

AI & Machine Learning

The technological foundation for all of this is woven into advanced computing applications, many of which are making rapid progress with the use of AI and Machine Learning, Jenna Paukstis, Vice President, Communications Solutions, Networked Information Solutions Division, Northrop Grumman, told The National Interest.

“With AI we can make decisions at speed in real time,” Paukstis said.

This kind of advanced algorithm-enabled computing at the edge can gather incoming sensor information, bounce it off a vast, seemingly limitless database in real time to draw comparisons, make identifications, find moments and objects of great relevance, organize and distill the information … and share it across the force. 

Collecting data can only go so far, especially when it arrives in such volume from so many otherwise disparate sources. AI-enabled computing can take this kind of circumstance and perform critical organizational, analytical and procedural functions in milliseconds, exponentially faster than any human could.

“Edge computing enables the Freedom Radio, integrated communications, navigation and target identification systems. This is key to providing our customers with real time decision making capabilities to address the near pair threat and have that decision and information superiority.” Paukstis said.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.