WASHINGTON — The KC-46 will be the first aircraft to be outfitted with equipment that will make it a node in the U.S. Air Force’s new battle management system, the service confirmed Friday.

As part of the first capability release of the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System program, the service plans to outfit a portion of its Boeing KC-46 aerial refueling tankers with “an open architecture communications subsystem and edge processing” equipment that will allow it to pass data between the F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters, the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office said in response to written questions from Defense News.

The intent, the RCO stated, is to reach early operational capability by the end of fiscal 2022.

The F-35 and F-22 were both made by Lockheed Martin, but they use different data links, each with a low probability of intercept: the Multifunctional Advanced Data Link for the F-35 and the Intra-Flight Data Link onboard the F-22. Those links are incompatible and do not allow the fighters to share information while retaining stealth.

To solve that issue, a number of KC-46s will be equipped with a pod filled with communications equipment that translates between the two waveforms.

The RCO offered few specifics about what products it will seek to build the first ABMS capability release and what is the projected cost. It declined to comment on how many units it intends to buy.

Also left unclear is whether the ABMS “on ramp” demonstrations allowed the Air Force to cut down the development timelines of the technologies it will seek, or whether the exercises helped narrow the scope of what it will seek to buy.

To purchase the capability, the service will “utilize a range of contracts” that could include existing contracts, soliciting responses through broad agency announcements, Small Business Innovation Research awards, and cooperative research and development agreements, the RCO stated.

The Air Force is currently conducting a cost analysis, added the RCO, which provided no further details.

Through the ABMS program, the service hopes to incrementally test and field hardware and software that will allow all of its platforms and sensors to share data, while also using novel technologies like machine learning to ensure that meaningful, easily digestible information is presented to decision-makers when they need it most.

In addition to fielding ABMS hardware for the KC-46, the RCO also plans to make “major investments in digital infrastructure” as part of the program, said Randy Walden, who leads the office.

“To build ABMS, you must first build the digital structures and pathways over which critical data is stored, computed, and moved,” he said in an Air Force news release. “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.”

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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