Being a small country with a relatively small air force that usually abstains from coalition-level air campaigns can be an isolating experience, but sometimes in a helpful way.

Consider the example of tactical airborne networking.

A decade of bold promises and an even more ambitious programme launched by NATO member countries have delivered hardly any improvements on the 30-year-old Link 16 network, rendering US and European fighter cockpits dependent on 1980s-style data transfer speeds in an age of ubiquitous wideband connectivity.

In Israel, however, the story is much different. Aided by a focused set of integration requirements and unencumbered with coalition-level interoperability challenges, the Israeli air force today operates with an indigenously developed airborne tactical networking system conceived only 15 years ago.

The developer of that system, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, now wants to offer a newer and more powerful airborne networking system on the export market to serve in a vastly more complex environment for aircraft integration and interoperability.

This Global Link system – comprised of UHF and L-Band radios, plus a power amplifier and application computer – has already been integrated and demonstrated on a military helicopter flown by an undisclosed South American government, says Yaron Bul, a director of business development and sales for Rafael air and command, control, communication and computers and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems.

The demonstration saw a helicopter transmit live video to a ground terminal more than 60nm (111km) away, using a rate of transmit of 1-2MB/s and of receipt of 10MB/s. The pilot can receive such large data files while still being able to transmit voice or data messages to the ground with broadband data speeds, Bul says.

With the integrated computer, Global Link can also host new applications, similar to how an iPhone can add “apps”. One possible example is a midair collision warning system, using the datalink network to alert pilots to imminent danger.

The helicopter demonstration offers a vivid glimpse of the system’s potential. It offers transmission speeds several orders of magnitude beyond the capabilities of Link 16, reaching the promise of such failed western programmes as the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS), which the US Department of Defense cancelled several years ago amidst performance shortfalls and cost overruns.

But Bul acknowledges it is also limited. The aircraft – perhaps like Ecuador’s Dhruv helicopter fleet – uses an Israeli-made avionics suite, which greatly simplifies Rafael’s integration task for a new data link.

Success on the export depends on integrating the system into the non-Israeli cockpit avionics of a military aircraft. To achieve that goal, Rafael needs the co-operation and investment of an aircraft integrator, such as Saab or the Eurofighter consortium.

Obtaining such support is complicated by multiple obstacles, Bul acknowledges. First, Rafael is not licensed to connect Global Link to even simple NATO-standard networks, such as the HAVE QUICK system. To maintain interoperability with NATO, the aircraft manufacturer would have to select a local company that could partner with Rafael to integrate a NATO-standard waveform into Global Link, Bul says.

Secondly, the integration of Global Link itself into the cockpit is not a trivial task. Indeed, the complexity of integrating JTRS into multiple aircraft types operated by numerous air forces is one reason the programme failed.

But Bul says Rafael has developed a way to simplify and reduce the cost of integrating a new avionics capability into a cockpit.

By any measure, that’s a bold claim. Integrating a major subsystem into the avionics suite of a military cockpit means altering the operational flight programme (OFP), the software-based operating system that serves as the brains of the aircraft. The integration process is so complicated manufacturers usually prefer to lump several major changes together into a “block” update, with costs generally in the hundreds of millions, to billions, of dollars.

But Israeli companies are well-known for finding innovative shortcuts around the military avionics integration bottleneck. Not surprisingly, Rafael proposes a way to streamline the integration process for Global Link.

As Bul describes it, the trick is to avoid a change that requires an update to the OFP. For transmissions of data and video, all that is required is to connect Global Link with a new computer running on Internet Protocol (IP)-based databus. That computer communicates directly with the aircraft’s display computer. Usually such integration tasks involve changing the OFP, but Bul insists that is not necessary. A middleware layer is also needed to complete the interface between the data link and the display computer, he says.

Rafael bases the credibility for its claims on what has already been achieved with the Ravnet-300 system, which is now deployed by the Israeli air force.

“The IAF in 2000 was going to procure four more squadrons of F-16Is,” Bul recalls. “There was a need for a new radio. Because the old radio that was designed by Rafael was too old, too expensive. So they made a competition between the companies and we came back with an innovative concept. We had just made a study of networks in the late 1990s. Rafael was doing a comprehensive study about networking and we told them: ‘Why not do a networking radio?'

“While in the same spectrum of UHF between 225Mhz to 400Mhz, instead of having only voice, we can give you voice and data and networking and relay and everything else,” Bul continues. “So they bought the idea.”

Ravnet is an oddly unique capability enjoyed by the Israeli air force. In an age of smartphones and wifi, most fighter cockpits are capable of sending only the most minimal data transmissions.

“A lot of things were developed quite nicely in aviation. But communications is behind partly because [of] this fiasco of JTRS and partly because the aircraft integrators are a pain in the neck. They are making every integration of a system on an aircraft something unbelievably difficult and every application that you want to develop right now, you have to develop the entire avionics block. This was becoming a mess, and people cannot progress nicely with new applications.”