The U.S. Air Force is likely to release a request for proposal for the Airborne Edge Node for the Boeing [BA] KC-46 Pegasus tanker in the coming months, as it looks to award a contract and field the communications pod by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2022.

Of the U.S. Air Force’s nearly $204 million requested funding in fiscal 2022 for the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), $147 million is for development of the Airborne Edge Node for the KC-46 under ABMS Capability Release 1.

“ABMS Capability Release #1 Early Operational Capability (EOC) is the demonstration of key functionality during initial flight test, projected as early as the 4th Quarter of Fiscal Year 2022,” the Air Force wrote in an email. EOC is essentially the same as the more common term, Initial Operational Capability, but the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, which is spearheading ABMS, has given the term EOC to ABMS developments.

Air Force Chief of Staff Charles Q. Brown has said that the Airborne Edge Node “is the first major step of us putting ABMS on our aircraft” and that the pod will begin the Air Force effort to field ABMS communications nodes. The networking of platforms at the “tactical edge” is to improve data security and reduce time lags for processing information and sending it to front line forces.

The Air Force plans to operationalize ABMS on the first KC-46s by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2022 and would eventually like to outfit all the desired 179 KC-46s with ABMS communications nodes (Defense Daily, June 9). The initial operational capability for ABMS on the KC-46 would thus come before the KC-46 is able to refuel planes operationally without limitation–a capability that is unlikely until 2024.

The idea to make tankers an important part of the Air Force’s communication network is not a new one. In the 1960s, Strategic Air Command and the then-Tactical Air Command modified KC-135s for that purpose, which included the use of seven KC-135s as “Combat Lightning” tactical communications relays to give the commander of 7th Air Force enhanced control of tactical air operations over North Vietnam. In the late 1990s, a similar “smart tanker” concept emerged.

Air Mobility Command (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.

The Airborne Edge Node “will allow for secure, resilient communications between the F-22 and F-35 and will extend the sharing of situational awareness across the globe in near-real time through satellite communications to and from command and control nodes such as Air Operations Centers (AOC) and Common Mission Control Center (CMCC),” per the Air Force’s fiscal 2022 budget request. “In addition to serving the tactical customers (fighter aircraft), the KC-46 C2 node will also provide data and information to operational and strategic customers while providing improved strategic awareness to the KC-46 crew. CR#1 [Capability Release 1] constitutes a first edge node on the ABMS network and provides the example for other platforms to connect.”

AMC has 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 Remote Vision System (RVS), which has undergone a re-design to RVS 2.0.

Northrop Grumman [NOC] is one company that is looking to leverage its communications gateway, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and secure processing experience for ABMS and the Air Force’s “Data Tanker” competition, including the building and integration of the Airborne Edge Node.

Ian Reynolds, director of network solutions for Northrop Grumman’s networked information solutions division, said that the company is expanding its family of open architecture, platform-agnostic, gateway systems that enable communications and cross domain translations between beyond-line-of-sight and line-of-sight voice and data networks, including systems that allow connections among fifth and fourth generation aircraft.

“Northrop Grumman’s gateway systems have an extensive track record of helping interconnect branches of the military on airborne and tanker platforms,” he said. “On multiple DoD programs, our gateways provide a secure Wi-Fi in the sky capability for a range of missions requiring advanced data translation and communications.”

For example, the company has said that its Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) gateway system, first deployed with the Air Force in 2008, has flown more than 200,000 combat hours in more than 15,500 missions and was one of the first battle-tested gateway systems.

BACN “provides critical tactical data link translation capabilities that include Link 16, voice and data connectivity between air and ground users, all enhancing situational awareness and coordination among joint warfighters,” Reynolds said.

Another Northrop Grumman system has been the Roll-On Beyond-Line-Of-Sight Enhancement (ROBE) for extending the coverage of Link 16 and situational awareness data links (SADL). ROBE, which had its first flight in 2008, is on two tankers in three theaters of operation for the relay of information to front line forces, said Reynolds, adding that ROBE has flown more than 72,000 combat hours while maintaining more than 99 percent availability.

“We think our experience on ROBE really positions us well to participate strongly in terms of ABMS and JADC2 and the ‘Data Tanker’ as well,” he said.

Northrop Grumman said that a recent North American Aerospace Defense Command Arctic air defense exercise featured the company’s gateway communications for KC-135 and KC-46 tankers to permit situational awareness for friendly forces and range extensions for beyond-line-of-sight links, including the Multifunctional Information Distribution System and SADL.

The company is now turning its attention to develop multi-level security systems with advanced functions, like cloud computing, machine learning, secure and ethical AI, next generation data links and the use of third party software and sensor solutions.

Reynolds said that Northrop Grumman proved this month “the open architecture nature of our gateway systems by successfully integrating and demonstrating a new high capacity backbone [HCB] capability provided by L3Harris [LHX].”

“This demonstration of next generation, high capacity backbone gateway capabilities enables data flow 300 times faster than the speeds previously available, additional bandwidth that will be required to take advantage of the processing speeds needed to help unlock the advanced network architecture required for JADC2,” he said.

In less than a year, Reynolds said, Northrop Grumman’s HCB moved from concept to demonstration, which involved high throughput by simultaneous transfer of five simulated sensor feeds–two electro optical/infrared and 3 full motion video streams–in addition to voice and Link 16  tactical data translated to Universal Command and Control Interface traffic.

Northrop Grumman is to test the HCB-enabled gateway system on multiple platforms “in the near future,” Reynolds said.