GRAPEVINE, Texas — The U.S. Air Force’s aerial refueling tanker fleet could expand its portfolio by serving as a node in the service’s larger network, according to Gen. Mike Holmes, the commander of Air Combat Command.
“We’ve always understood the capability of that tanker to pass information back and forth, and we know that that works, and we know that node can be tankers spread out from the place we took off from and the place we are operating,” Holmes said in response to an audience question at the 2018 Airlift Tanker Association symposium outside Dallas, Texas. “So I think its fantastic, and I’m all for it.”
In September, Rockwell Collins announced they had been contracted to provide 1950s-era KC-135R aircraft with the Real Time Information in the Cockpit system, which would provide those tankers with a connection to Link 16, the service’s primary data link, for the first time.
“Pilots and boom operators will now be able to view intelligence feeds on the new avionics displays we’re providing as part of their Block 45 upgrade,” said Dave Schreck, Rockwell Collins’s vice president and general manager for airborne solutions, said in a release at the time. “With information such as enemy threats, target data, and blue force locations at their fingertips, crews will gain real-time situational awareness to more effectively carry out their missions.”
Under Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, the service has been working to find a way to link aircraft and sensors on a network to enhance awareness in combat operations. Goldfein, who has flown on the Air Force’s next tanker, the long-delayed Boeing KC-46 Pegasus, said flying the aircraft was about more than controlling the stick.
“I strapped on this node in a network that has that computing capacity to connect,” he described in a roundtable with reporters at the symposium.
Holmes also lauded the KC-46′s capabilities, which include the Link 16 data link, among other systems.
“I’m excited about the KC-46′s communications abilities, I think its a great idea to bring those capabilities into the rest of the tanker fleet,” he said. “It’ll help us not just push airplanes, but it will be able to bring information back and forth.”
And when it comes to the larger, Air Force-wide network, Holmes said the service has “done enough talking” about the future network architecture, adding: “It’s time to take a step and decide what that way forward will be and what that architecture will be.”
“When you look at our future ISR and command systems, Will Roper, our senior acquisition official, is going to take a new look at what we’re going to do to replace the capability that’s been done by JSTARS, and he’s going to start with an architect instead of a program office,” Holmes said. “The architect’s job is to design the network that we will operate under, and so we can make sure that the pieces work in that effort, and instead of doing what we’ve done in the past, which is design a bunch of pieces each with its own communications capability, and try to figure out how to put them together after its too late.”
However, he added a caveat: “Like all our great ideas, we have to find the money for it in a budget that doesn’t have enough to go around.”