The US Air Force (USAF) demonstrated the data-sharing capabilities of its gatewayONE payload during a test series that culminated in the formation flight of an F-22A, F-35A and XQ-58A over Arizona on December 9.
During the test flight, the Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor and F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation stealth fighters used the gatewayONE payload to share actionable operational data with each other for the first time. As the USAF states – prior to this key milestone – these fifth-generation aircraft had been limited when it comes to communicating with each other because their “native digital languages” are incompatible. This means that the secure communications systems of the F-22 (Intra-Flight Data Link) and the F-35 (Multifunctional Advanced Data Link) are unable to directly talk to each other.
Although both aircraft can communicate with command and control (C2) centres using their legacy tactical data connections, the incompatibility of their “native digital languages” has been problematic. However, the gatewayONE payload has been developed in part to fix that issue by translating information between the formats of the F-22’s and F-35’s secure communications systems.
A press release issued by the USAF on December 14 outlined how the payload worked during the test. It said: “Not only can gatewayONE translate between those formats, in this test it moved data that is normally relegated to an operations center or tactical ground node, directly pushing it into the cockpit at the edge of the multi-domain battlespace for the first time.
“Additionally, the test pushed the position data of each platform outside of the aircraft’s close-proximity formation through gatewayONE, which enables battle managers on the ground or in the air to better orchestrate operations,” it added.
During the test, the payload passed tracks and cues from ground operators to each aircraft and allowed a cue to be passed from the Lightning to the Raptor for the first time. “These bi-directional communications pathways occurred in the platforms’ native digital language and the data was displayed through the aircrafts’ organic systems,” the USAF added.
The gatewayONE payload has been developed as part of the USAF’s wider Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) programme. This effort seeks to create what the service calls a “military Internet of Things (IoT.mil)” network that intends to enhance the exchange of data and information across the battlespace.
Lt Col Eric Wright, an F-35A pilot with the USAF’s 59th Test and Evaluation Squadron ‘Golden Pride’, praised the capabilities that the gatewayONE payload brings to fifth-generation fighting. He said: “The gatewayONE payload really showed what’s possible and helped us take a big step towards achieving [Joint All-Domain Command and Control]. This critical capability provides additional connections between our advanced fighters and other forces and battle managers across all domains.
“The future is promising, and gatewayONE will allow the F-22 and F-35 to connect to and feed data sources they’ve never before accessed. Those future connections will bring additional battlefield awareness into the cockpit and enable integrated fires across US forces,” he concluded.
For the recent test campaign, preparatory testing took place at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nevada, while primary tests were undertaken at the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. A USAF Boeing KC-46A Pegasus tanker, a US Marine Corps (USMC) F-35B and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL’s) Kratos Defense XQ-58A Valkyrie (attritableONE) also participated in the campaign.
During the test series, the USAF says that the KC-46A connected to a “ground node using commercial internet routing standards over the Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT) waveform.” It adds that the USMC F-35B also successfully sent full-motion video to a ground controller during the campaign.
Preston Dunlap, the Department of the Air Force’s chief architect, said: “If fifth-generation platforms are going to be quarterbacks of a joint-penetrating team, we have to be able to communicate with those quarterbacks in an operationally relevant manner and enable data-sharing between them, to them, and from them.
“For years people said it couldn’t be done. Today the team turned another page toward making the impossible possible. In just 12 months, the team has opened the door to a world where we can put the power of an operations center into the cockpit at the tactical edge,” he added.
The test series culminated with the December 9 flight test, which included the XQ-58A – a rocket-launched, low-cost, attritable unmanned aircraft system (UAS). This stealthy platform is being developed under the AFRL's Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) programme for use as a 'loyal wingman' system.
Dubbed attritableONE by the USAF, the Valkyrie successfully conducted a semi-autonomous flight in formation with the F-22A and F-35A for the first time. It was equipped with the gatewayONE payload to test its capabilities from an attritable platform, but the service states that “shortly after take-off, the communications payload lost connectivity and those test objectives were unable to be accomplished.”
The USAF states that the test campaign had 18 objectives, of which nine were achieved successfully. Lt Col Kate Stowe, gatewayONE program manager at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, said: “The real win of the day was seeing the gatewayONE establish a secure two-way translational data path across multiple platforms and multiple domains. That’s the stuff ABMS is all about.”