Northrop Grumman will test a system that will allow fourth- and fifth-generation fighters to talk to each other, as well as “attritable” aircraft, during the next iteration of the Advanced Battle Management System experiment.
The F-22 and F-35 were designed with stealthy communications gear that allowed them to talk to others of their own fleet, but made them incompatible with each other. The Air Force has put several interim communications steps in place to allow them to talk with one another, as well as fourth-gen types.
The system, being developed under a contract let last October by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center C3I & Networks Directorate—Northrop would not discuss its terms—is a “modular, open-architecture gateway” that uses both voice and data to allow the aircraft to communicate, the company said in a May 1 press release. The system is a programmable radio carried by the aircraft and requires neither physical modification nor the use of a flying “translator” aircraft like the manned E-11A or unmanned EQ-4B Battlefield Airborne Communication Network, or BACN.
Northrop said the system is based on its “Freedom” software-driven radio. It is “developing affordable variants customized to fit multiple platforms,” the company said in a press release.
Testing will be done in the laboratory, on the ground, and in the air prior to the next iteration of the ABMS experiment schedule.
A Northrop spokeswoman said the technology was demonstrated during the December 2019 iteration of the ABMS experiment program, “as the gatewayONE prototype.” She also said Northrop was “awarded the contract to develop and demonstrate a Software Programmable Open Mission Systems-Compliant radio terminal” for USAF. She declined to say whether the radio is a low-probability of intercept (LPI) type.
Preston Dunlap, the Air Force’s architect for ABMS, said after the last experiment, “We did begin to pass data back and forth over what we call a low probability of detection intercept” system and pass voice and data between Air Force F-22s and Navy F-35s. He said that gateway was built by Northrop, Lockheed Martin, and Honeywell.
The postponed April experiment for ABMS was to have featured the XQ-58 Valkyrie using the gateway, and this is likely to play in the next iteration. Air Force budget documents indicated the service will install some gateway hardware on the KC-46 tanker.