Score another one for Darpa.According to Aviation Week, the fringe-science organization and the Air Force have successfully tested a kick-ass new airborne datalink -- think wi-fi in the sky -- that could make all others obsolete. You think the raid that knocked off Zarqawi was fast? With this new datalink, air strikes will happen even faster:Although it's just one piece of a much larger [Time-Critical Targeting] infrastructure, a program sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has made quantum leaps in delivering high-speed, Internet-protocol-based communications to front-line air and ground combat platforms. This Tactical Targeting Networking Technology (TTNT) program recently proved its potential during the 2006 Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment (JEFX) at Nellis AFB, Nev. Seven aircraft and four ground nodes equipped with TTNT terminals worked with about 20 other fighter aircraft, most equipped with today's low-bandwidth Link 16 data links.Mission information was routed via TTNT to AWACS and E-2C air-to-air command-and-control platforms, then on to fighters for execution. By all accounts, the technology worked very well, and both uniformed and contractor participants declared the experiment quite successful.Datalinks between airplanes and ground stations have been around for decades. Link 16 -- for which thousands of fighters, missile batteries and ships are wired -- is really just an evolved 1950s air-defense datalink good only for transmitting basic location data. For years, the military's goal has been to transition to a true Internet Protocol datalink. Not only would an IP datalink be fast (2 Mb/sec versus Link 16's 238 kb/sec) and long-ranged (up to 100 miles), it would be compatible with a wide array of internet-ready systems.The Aviation Week article includes this scenario:Using its Sniper targeting pod, an F-15E Strike Eagle crew detects a band of insurgents smuggling weapons into Iraq. But it's dark, the pod's infrared images are a bit fuzzy, and the crew is reluctant to attack without corroborating information.The F-15E's weapons systems officer captures a still image of the suspected insurgents loading weapons and presses a single button to send the geolocated picture to a Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC). A quick search of online intelligence databases by CAOC operators uncovers other data that correlate with the fighter-transmitted image. Soon, the F-15E crew receives new images of the target area, each annotated with critical data that show the location of friendly forces. An accompanying text message outlines a "workflow" of steps that the F-15E crew and associated command-and-control (C2) aircraft in the region should follow.Bottom line: No friendlies in the immediate area. Considerable insurgent activity and communications "chatter" at the designated location was detected within the last three days. "Cleared to attack." Time elapsed: single-digit minutes.That's fast. Link 16, the current state-of-the-art in airborne datalinks, could never relay the same amount of data so quickly or so easily. I wrote about Link 16's limitations for Sea Power back in the spring:Link 16 is far from perfect. The networks finite capacity means that [network nodes] broadcast information only every 12 seconds, and entering terminals every 24, meaning a networked platforms situational awareness, while more complete than ever, comes at the price of being up to 12 seconds old.Its relatively anemic data rate is another one of Link 16s major limitations.The waveforms that evolved into Link 16 were intended just to connect interceptors to ground control stations. As a result, these waveforms supported only highly-specialized message formats adapted to particular relationships between particular platforms.Adan says that specialized message formats have dangerous consequences. Recall that during Operation Iraqi Freedom, without common Link 16 capability, we had Patriot batteries targeting F-16s and F/A-18s.All these limitations mean Link 16 is essentially a compromise system. Ideal future networks would employ Internet Protocols (IP) to enable true plug-and-play capability at much higher data rates. But getting to there from here will take years and require all the services and the Department of Defense to commit to standard equipment and waveforms.Squabbling between and within the services stymied earlier efforts to field an IP datalink. And TTNT ain't out of the woods yet. While the TTNT datalink should be compatible with some of the same terminals used for Link 16, it's intended for a large-scale rollout with the Joint Tactical Radio System, or Jitters, which has suffered huge cost overruns and delays.Check my Flickr to see pics of Air Force and Marine Corps squadrons that recently gained datalink terminals as part of upgrades to their F-16s and two-seat F/A-18Ds. And check out a recent review of my graphic novel WAR FIX.--David Axe
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