The Air Force is planning a December exercise that will test ways to get the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets and the X-37B spaceplane to transmit data in a contested domain, service officials said Nov. 7.

Speaking at the Defense One Outlook 2020 conference in Washington, D.C., Preston Dunlap, the Air Force’s new advanced battle management system (ABMS) architect, said the service is planning a four-monthlong exercise where it will connect the two fifth-generation fighter jets to its experimental spaceplane to help prove a concept of joint command and control for multi-domain operations.

“We’ve got a variety of platforms that we’d like to be able to share information in ways that they haven’t done before,” Dunlap said. The December test is a “highly ambitious goal” to try and build a communications gateway to share data in a contested environment, and do it in a way that ensures survivability of the assets as well as transmission of the messages.

The F-22 and the F-35 are but one example where the Lockheed Martin [LMT]-built Raptor and Joint Strike Fighter were built at different times with different sets of communications standards and the service would like to overcome that barrier, Dunlap noted. In the future, other aircraft and assets will be tested as well.

“What we’re going to do here in December … in this four-month window and every four months thereafter is to bring capabilities together so that they work together and share data,” he said.  He emphasized that the goal is not to achieve a “100-percent solution” but to push program managers to enhance the capability in a short development window. The results of the tests will be shared with the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, he added.

The X-37B inclusion was not immediately made clear. The Boeing [BA]-developed aircraft recently returned to Earth after a record 780 days in orbit conducting various experiments for the service (Defense Daily, Oct. 28).

Air Force Brig. Gen. David Kumashiro, the director of Joint Force Integration and deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, said the goal is to demonstrate an ability to connect platforms across various domains. “When we talk about every sensor to every shooter, … it really is about getting that right sensor with the right processing to the right platform to deliver some type of effect.”

“As we refine the connections and show levels of interoperability … we will then be able to develop what that means in terms of creating an effect against the adversary,” he added.

He declined to share what sort of payload the X-37B could carry or how it could benefit the Air Force and U.S. military on the battlefield.

“I think it’s a platform that’s available to our nation, so depending on what that platform is able to do … and [how we can] share that information and that data, we’ll see what comes with that capability,” he said.

The location of the December exercise remains relatively unknown. Dunlap told reporters after the panel that it would bring together “a wide swath of Air Force … and it may not even all happen at the same geographical location.”

“It’s not just about two planes talking to each other, we’re also doing … all the cloud-based applications,” he said, noting that the actual flight tests will likely occur in several locations around the continental United States.

The Air Force is using existing ABMS-related funding for the December exercise, Dunlap confirmed. However, future exercises may be impacted should Congress fail to reach a budget agreement for fiscal year 2020 defense appropriations.

“I’m not at the point where I have to make difficult choices yet, so I will still maintain hope that the right choices will be made,” Dunlap said.

Connecting assets on the battlefield is not only a top Air Force priority – Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein disclosed Wednesday that the service is putting $9 billion toward the effort over the next five years – but one shared across the services, Dunlap noted.

The branch leaders have agreed to move from separate concepts of “multi-domain command-and-control” or “multi-domain operations” to one unified concept dubbed “joint all-domain command-and-control,” or JAD-C2, in recognition of the combined need to share data across all U.S. military platforms.