The upcoming National Defense Strategy (NDS) may portend new kinds of command and control (C2) able to withstand cyber and space attacks, as the United States moves military forces forward for a given conflict zone, Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, the head of U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), said on Feb. 2.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said that China is the pacing challenge for the United States, and the NDS is likely to put down a marker for military forces to be able to respond to threats in the Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) region.

“Under the C2 realm, how are we going to operate under attack from generating forces here in the United States all the way down this long contested line of logistics to the final tactical realm? What is that going to consist of? The INDOPACOM theater is a much, much larger theater than even CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command],” Van Ovost told a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) forum.

“These large movements may require different kinds of capabilities and different posture settings,” she said. “As we go forward, I look into the Joint Warfighting Concept, how we’re actually going to fight it, and I’m seeing in the National Defense Strategy that they’re nodding now to the fact that logistics is a specific task, that we’re going to need to be integrated to be successful in the future. All the wargames have pointed that way. Now we’re finally going to say explicitly what we’re going to have to do to protect the force as we mobilize and move it forward.”

The U.S. Air Force has said that it wants the Boeing [BA] KC-46 tanker to be an Airborne Edge Node for such contested environments and plans to use the KC-46 as a trial for the service’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2022 (Defense Daily, June 9, 2021).

The initial operational capability for ABMS on the KC-46 would thus come before the KC-46 is able to refuel planes without limitation–a capability that is unlikely until 2024, as the service works to resolve Category 1 and other deficiencies on the aircraft.

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 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.

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.

The KC-46 is “a multi-capable airplane,” Van Ovost said on Feb. 2. “It can do aeromedical evacuation, cargo, probe and drogue, and boom refueling, and it’s connected to the net. It’s Link 16. It’s our ability to see the battlespace [and] transmit as a node in the network. We can be an alternate C2 node.”