At war, alone and in the dark. Unafraid? Probably not, but you’ll have lots of people and machines to talk to.
The 1991 image of a string of F-117 Night Hawks attacking Bahgdad without support is a tactic of the past.
Instead of sailing above a carpet of tracer fire and the occasional unguided missile launched from an already disabled air defense network, the future stealth strike aircraft will face a dynamic, complex and highly networked “anti-access” environment of S-300s, S-400s and other advanced anti-aircraft missiles that are making their way into enemy arsenals.
As a result, the strike force will have to be even more dynamic and complex with a mix of standoff missiles, unmanned combat aircraft, F-22s, B-2s and F-35s arriving from all directions.
But there’s still part of that offensive formula that’s not worked out. All those F-22s, B-2s, F-35s and, possibly, unmanned combat aircraft, need to operate as a single stealth fleet.
“There’s been a lot of discussion about [communications] links,” says Maj. Gen. Charles Davis, program executive officer of the F-35 program. “That discussion is nowhere near done. There’s also a lot more discussion on how to link [the stealth fleet to conventional] F/A-18E/F, EA-18G, F-16 and F-15s. There’s a long way to go to understand how the elements of the air wing of the future will work together.”
Link 16 was being examined for its applicability to air-to-air communications, but its lack of bandwidth was soon recognized as problem.
“As the guys start understanding what [intelligence and targeting data] they can get from the F-35, pretty soon there’s no bandwidth left on Link 16,” says David Heinz, the program’s deputy PEO. “We need to come up with who needs it, when, why and does it need to be raw data or can it be some fusion of data. The dialogue is getting better, but it will still be happening five years from now as we migrate through UAVs and other platforms.”
The Medium Altitude Data Link (MADL) solves the bandwidth communications problems for F-22s, F-35s and B-2s. But it doesn’t help them communicate with the legacy platforms.
In addition, “We know that we want to share targeting, data, threat or electronic warfare information with or from a UAV,” Davis says. “The issue is not if we can do it. We’ve got the software. But it is a pretty big gorilla in terms of the number of aircraft that will have the capability. You’ve got to find the message and determine what it says. How do I want it to go from node to node? They haven’t solved it, but it has highlighted the problems with a future networking system.”
F-35 Block 2.0 will be the first version that offers connectivity between stealth airplanes.
“Then you increase the messages, and then the data flow until you get to Block 3, our final configuration, and that’s the full MADL capability,” Davis says. “Same for Link 16. The messages come on in different formats. The boxes and antennas are there. The software determines what messages and data flows.”