The US Air Force is talking about a new mission set for tanker and cargo aircraft—turning them into flying communication nodes. The new mission set concept, known as the Data Tanker, uses existing aircraft, operating refuelling missions, to not only share fuel but also collect and transmit data over high capacity datalinks and, via high speed processors, share information with combat troops at the tactical edge.
The data tanker effort is part of a broader DoD initiative to connect and integrate shooters, sensors and platforms across all domains and branches of the military to advance the speed of information-sharing and decision-making – also known as Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2). Northrop Grumman’s gateway systems and secure processing capabilities are uniquely positioned to make JADC2 Data Tankers a reality.
These systems have an extensive track record of helping interconnect branches of the military via airborne and tanker platforms. Through multiple DoD programmes, Northrop Grumman’s gateway offerings provide a ‘Wi-Fi in the sky’ capability for a range of missions relying on advanced data translation and communications capabilities. The company’s gateway offerings are also well positioned to provide access to layers of information in JADC2 environments.
The KC-135, for example, carries the company’s current gateway systems to provide advanced, open and secure datalink capabilities to troops who otherwise would not be able to access communications or translate mission data across branches of the military.
Earlier this year, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) conducted an Arctic air defence exercise that featured Northrop Grumman’s gateway capabilities on both KC-135 and KC-46 aircraft. These provided a communication system designed to deliver range extension for links like Multifunctional Information Distribution System, Situation Awareness Data Link and other beyond-line-of-sight communications systems. This produces a single integrated situational awareness picture of the position of friendly assets and potential threats. The successful exercise demonstrated Northrop Grumman’s ability to easily integrate its gateway offerings and deliver advanced data link capabilities to support multiple DoD tanker platforms.