The U.S. Air Force plans to field its Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) on the first Boeing [BA] KC-46 Pegasus tankers by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2022 and would like to make all planned 179 KC46s communications nodes in ABMS.

“Ideally, we need every one of our aircraft equipped to handle this,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Brian Robinson, the deputy commander of Air Mobility Command (AMC), told the Defense News Pathfinders virtual forum on June 9. “I realize the fiscal realities there. We’ll buy as many as we can. We’ll do the planning to figure out what the refueling requirements for the number of platforms would be and how much coverage we would get, as we go through the analysis.”

“We think the [initial KC-46 ABMS fielding] target should be the fourth quarter of FY ’22 for the first instantiation,” he said. “There’s experimentation going on right now so the goal is to get Capability Release 1 fielded, at least IOC [initial operational capability] by that time, in FY ’22.”

Last December, former Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said that the Air Force had selected ABMS Capability Release 1 to provide a mini-Internet for Air Force refueling tankers to provide data from clouds to forces in the field, especially those in area denial/communications denial environments, through the use of mobility gateways and analytics (Defense Daily, Dec. 15, 2020).

AMC has said that it wants to make its aircraft, including the KC-46, KC-135 tanker and the C-17 transport, nodes in ABMS and the larger DoD Joint All Domain Command and Control, called JADC2, network.

Under ABMS Capability Release 1, the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office is to design, buy, and install communications pods for ABMS on a limited number of KC-46s to allow Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II fighters to receive and transmit information rapidly.

Such communications pods will act as translators between the F-22 and F-35, as both aircraft have had problems with incompatible data links–the Multifunction Advanced Data Link for the F-35 and the Intra-Flight Data Link for the F-22.

Airmen tested the performance of the Boeing Tactical Data Link (TDL) for the KC-46 during last month’s Mobility Guardian 2021 (MG21), and Air Mobility Command said that TDL performed well during the exercise (Defense Daily, May 27).

AMC began the large, flagship readiness exercise in 2017 and holds it every two years.

The TDL allowed AMC aircraft to link up with A-10s and F-16 fighters during MG21, per AMC.

Robinson said on June 9 that feedback from A-10 pilots during MG21 indicated that having the KC-46s on Link 16 was “game changing,” as “a lot of that situational awareness with mobility aircraft is [now] gleaned through Voice Rep, voice reports.”

“It’s human beings in the command and control nodes and aircrew relaying via push-to-talk radio the situation,” he said. “Then you have to write it down on a piece of paper or a chart that you have to build a visual depiction of the situational awareness that you’re dealing with. We learned [in MG21] that [Link 16 is] actually value added and reduces the workload for all involved.”

Robinson said that the decision to make KC-46s central ABMS communications nodes was unrelated to limitations on KC-46 refueling of other aircraft due to Category 1 deficiencies, including the Remove Vision System (RVS), which has undergone a re-design to RVS 2.0 (Defense Daily, Feb. 24).

“I wasn’t there when the decision was made but from what I’ve heard, the tanker is going to be there in that space anyway,” he said. “It’s usually on the edge of the battlespace. That’s up to the line where it’s permissive enough for any tanker to be…so if that aircraft is going to be there anyway, what else can it do aside from just sit there and wait to pass fuel? What kind of redundancy or resiliency can it offer to the joint force and the Air Force, so that’s how it came to be from looking at the options. Then there are certain configuration options on the structure of the KC-46 that led us to start pulling the string on what if, or how could we, what if we did it this way, or added this particular capability so that’s the kind of thinking that we’re all going through right now.”