A KC-46 Pegasus refueling tanker conducts receiver compatibility tests with a C-17 Globemaster III from Joint Base Lewis-McChord. 

Jun 09 2021

Air Force Tests Wireless ‘Pods’ for Relaying Data from Planes

The communications systems are designed to enhance command and control for the service branch.

To fight the air battles of the future, the Air Force has decided that pilots need more modern technology, and it’s starting to test out some tools to make that a reality.

Last month, the Air Force said that it would deploy new communications “pods” on a select number of KC-46 Pegasus tanker planes. The pods, which will essentially act as Wi-Fi hotspots on the aircraft, will enable the pilots of F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II planes to “log on” and instantly receive and transmit “a wealth of data and information that previously was not available or, at best, hard to receive,” according to an Air Force statement.

The pods are part of a larger effort the Air Force is undertaking, known as Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), the service branch’s contribution to the Pentagon-wide Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) initiative. That program is designed to “connect sensors from all of the military services — Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy and Space Force — into a single network,” as the Congressional Research Service notes.

The AMBS initiative is designed to collect and disseminate vast troves of data to Air Force personnel to enable them to make faster and better decisions. Technology is needed to underpin the program, and AMBS is moving “from a largely theoretical and development status to one involving the acquisition of specialized equipment and more real-world testing,” the Air Force said in a statement.

The Air Force said the transition shows the “benefits of pairing operators and engineers in the development of cutting-edge warfighting technologies under an agile acquisition process.”

A New Vision for Air Force Operations

The Defense Department envisions that JADC2 will not only underpin military operations but will deter adversaries and provide the foundation for joint operations, according to the Air Force.

“The requirements, technology and integration efforts in development under ABMS will enable this concept by simultaneously sensing, making sense of and acting upon a vast array of data and information from each of these domains, fusing and analyzing the data with the help of machine learning and artificial intelligence and providing warfighters with preferred options at speeds not seen before,” the Air Force noted in a statement.

In its Fiscal Year 2022 budget request, the Air Force is asking Congress for $204 million for the project, up from $158 million in FY 2021.

“To build ABMS, you must first build the digital structures and pathways over which critical data is stored, computed, and moved,” Randy Walden, program executive officer of the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, said in a statement. “The Department of the Air Force needs a smart, fast and resilient ‘system of systems’ to establish information and decision superiority, and ABMS will be that solution.”

Air Force program managers say the goal of ABMS is speed and utility, which means that some elements of the program are using commercial technology, and that the program requires a close relationship with industry and a willingness to experiment. As of late 2020, there were nearly 100 companies involved in the program, according to Air Force Magazine.

“Command and Control is as timeless as warfare — as the character of war changes, so too does the art and science of C2,” Brig. Gen. Jeffery Valenzia, who is leading the ABMS requirements and war fighter integration effort, said in a statement. “In a data-dependent and data-saturated world, victory belongs to the side with decision superiority — the ability to sense, make sense of a complex and adaptive environment, and act smarter, faster, and better.”

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U.S. Air Force photo by Christopher Okula