Boeing [BA] said that it is examining a number of options to make its KC-46 Pegasus refueling tanker a flying cell tower for the U.S. Air Force in the fielding of the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), the service’s component of Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2)–a DoD effort to build a cross-service digital architecture for multi-domain operations–in effect, a military Internet of Things with machine-to-machine interfaces.
“When it comes to KC-46 and where we see the future, we heard service officers talk a great deal about how they view KC-46 being a critical piece of the future networking environment that would operate at the tactical edge,” Mark Rasnake, Boeing’s capture team lead for JADC2/ABMS, told reporters on Feb. 19 in advance of next week’s Air Force Association 2021 Virtual Aerospace Warfighting Forum (VAWS).
“Internally, we’re looking at a number of different options as to how we can take the KC-46 and have an open mission system architecture as well as some of the other digital engineering capabilities we have to look at a range of different options,” he said. “It could be a podded option. It could be something that’s integrated internal to the aircraft. Right now, we’re looking with the customer to help shape the requirements, understand the requirements, and what direction they want to go.”
The Air Force has requested $3.3 billion for ABMS over five years, but congressional appropriators have removed funding because of their conern with the lack of requirements, an acquisition strategy, and cost estimates for ABMS.
By the end of this month, the U.S. Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) in consultation with Air Force Chief Architect Preston Dunlap is to draft an acquisition strategy for ABMS (Defense Daily, Nov. 24, 2020). Last November, former Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper made the RCO the integrating program executive office (PEO) for ABMS.
“We know with the transition of ABMS over to the RCO that there will be some changes with what we expect, and that will probably change the direction or some of the capabilities that may go onto KC-46 when it comes to sequencing and priorities,” Rasnake said.
Late last year, Roper said that the Air Force had selected ABMS Release 1 to provide a mini-Internet for 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.
The Air Force fleet of tankers consists of more than 400 aging Boeing [BA] KC-135s and KC-10s and 44 KC-46s. The Air Force and Boeing have been negotiating the terms of a contract for Pegasus Combat Capability (PC2) Block I for the company’s KC-46s–a contract which could come in the first quarter of next year and which would provide the tanker with communications upgrades, including radios compatible with DoD’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) and NATO’s Second Generation Anti Jam Tactical UHF Radio (SATURN) communications networks.
PC2 Block I discussions “are being worked with our KC-46 team,” Rasnake said on Feb. 19. “There’s been no definition at this point regarding which direction we are going to go. We want to work side by side with the customer. We are fully aware of Gateway 1 and those discussions that are taking place for the Air Force, but there haven’t been any decisions made regarding the timing and the sequencing. That’s what we’re working with the customer to understand what their future plans are, and then we’ll coordinate and synchronize that when it comes to the appropriate contract actions.”
Under PC2, Air Mobility Command (AMC) has envisioned a two- to four-year successive block upgrade program for the KC-46 to encompass enhanced communications, survivability, and greater autonomy for the refueling system, which has experienced significant problems with its Remote Vision System (RVS).