The Air Force is planning a series of recurring events to connect multiple legacy systems to each other and help the service flesh out its future distributed network, or Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) program.
The events, dubbed “Connect-a-Thons,” will launch in December with the goal of enabling data-sharing between the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the F-22 Raptor, and will continue every four months thereafter, and “we will not slip them,” said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics during a Nov. 12 Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington, D.C.
The service’s ABMS architect Preston Dunlap previously shared plans to connect the F-22 and the F-35 for the first time in a December event at the Nov. 7 Defense One Outlook 2020 conference (Defense Daily, Nov. 7). But Roper elaborated on the concept on Tuesday, sharing that the two fighter aircraft – which have notoriously been unable to share data – will be connected via a “Babel-Fish-like translator” dubbed GatewayOne, referencing one of the internet’s first multilingual translation apps.
“First we’ll deploy it just on a pole out at a range,” Roper said. At the second test four months later, GatewayOne will be deployed aboard the Air Force’s Kratos [KTOS]-built experimental XQ-58A Valkyrie unmanned aerial aircraft, he added.
In future demonstrations, the service wants to bring in Starlink satellites from Space X and demonstrate that it can integrate commercial communications assets into the loop “and then push our picture down to a handheld tablet to represent a ground operator,” Roper said.
Pending the initial test’s success, other future efforts will include connecting Starlink satellites to the KC-135 aerial refueler. “If we’ve got a commercial satellite overhead and it’s got bandwidth and we’re a licenser of it, then we want to show that we can spread out our ability to communicate across a world of different options,” he said. The service’s tanker fleet lacks sufficient connectivity bandwidth, and the KC-135 program office “has raised their hand and said, ‘We want to be the first to go operational with it,’” he added.
Roper added that he could see the F-16 Fighting Falcon team becoming a core participant in the Connect-a-Thon tests, calling it “a very innovative agile program with very innovative agile operators.”
“They know it’s going to be challenging to keep an F-16 viable in a contested environment,” he said.
The overall goal for Connect-a-Thon is for companies with “shovel-ready” systems to compete to participate in the Connect-a-thons, and receive funds outside of the normal Program Operation Memorandum cycle, he noted. The Air Force will partner with U.S. combatant commands on each event, with North American Aerospace Defense Command/U.S. Northern Command (NORAD/NORTHCOM) sponsoring the initial December test.
“They’re very gung-ho about ABMS as a way to improve homeland defense, so they jumped in to provide the operational context, [and] helping work the assets that we needed available to participate – the F-22s [and] the F-35s,” Roper said. Future Connect-a-Thons will involve U.S. Strategic Command and the nascent U.S. Space Command, he added.
Meanwhile, the tech demonstrations will provide lawmakers and other oversight managers with a tangible example of how the ABMS program will be honed into the future, he added.
“You don’t have to believe us for very long. … Let us get through a few Connect-a-Thon cycles and if we’re failing miserably, then that should tell you something about the future of the program,” Roper said.