Network-centric operation was a hot topic among industrial and military visitors

It was not the central topic of any speech, news release, headline or flying display, but the theme of network-centric operations (NCO) nonetheless overshadowed the show's more obvious military hardware, particularly from the US delegation.

The theme has evolved from previous shows. Industry and military delegations alike were keen to show that the fuss about transformation had become less an abstract theory and more a reality. The NCO ideal - a battlefield where sensors and shooters are swapping secure data files, each megabyte precisely calibrated to the needs of each specific recipient - is getting close.

There certainly was no shortage of enthusiasm. The unlikely phrase "networked mobility" was overheard in a routine briefing on the Boeing C-17 transport programme. Boeing underscored the F/A-18E/F's agility during the flying display, but the US Navy's top tactical fighter programme officer preferred to discuss potential connectivity upgrades for the Super Hornet. Often, the relevance of any weapon system or aircraft was characterised in terms of its relation to the "network."

Aircraft designed from scratch today, particularly unmanned combat and surveillance vehicles, must be networked or never leave the drawing board. But the greater proportion of networked assets for many years will be existing aircraft types, almost all of which were designed before the idea of NCO took root.

The most recent US Navy fighter to enter service, the F/A-18E/F, is delivered with baseline Link 16 connectivity, but the programme now envisages a much broader capability, especially for the two-seat F-model, says Rear Adm James Godwin, programme executive officer for tactical aircraft. Offboard sensors can now transmit tactical imagery into the Super Hornet cockpit, where it can be viewed on a 125mm (5in) screen. Godwin wants to enlarge the image by installing a 685mm display. It would be used to show either digital flight instruments, or magnified views of transmitted tactical imagery.

Tangible links

While there are still gigabytes of briefing slides showing satellites and unmanned air vehicles "connected" by unspecified lighting bolts, programme officials are increasingly able to point to more tangible links - the antennas, transmitters, receivers, processors and waveforms activated on existing aircraft and weapons.

The C-17 is one of the more unlikely examples of how the concept is rapidly spreading. The Globemaster is not an intelligence gatherer or a strike weapon, but a simple transporter. In US mobility plans, the C-17 moves people and equipment from a main operating base to a forward operating location, sometimes an austere airfield not far from the frontline. Baseline C-17s are now delivered with an en-route communications package installed aft in the cargo bay, allowing passengers to see updated threat information as they near drop zones or landing areas. Boeing also is self-funding a demonstration in the cockpit, installing a Jeppesen electronic flight-bag display that offers the pilot the chance to replan missions in flight, says Chris Raymond, Boeing business development director for airlift and tanker programmes. In the long term, he adds, Boeing's goal is to provide network access in the cockpit to offer pilots more situational awareness during tactical missions.

The US Air Force is pushing weapons of all kinds on to battlefield networks, and some examples highlighted at the show include the Lockheed Martin AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) and the Boeing Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). The USAF is set to launch the next phase of SDB development this year, which will augment the guided weapon with a datalink, says Gerry Freisthler, from the service's Air Armament Center. Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, has launched development of a two-way datalink for JASSM so as to offer a capability in naval anti-surface warfare, says Randy Bigum, vice-president of strike weapons.

Connectivity upgrades have moved to the fore as the USAF enters a multi-year pause for major new weapon development programmes. In the interim, the near-term goal is to link existing precision-guided bombs and missiles to off-board aircraft and sensors. The goals are to provide updated targeting information, especially for standoff or loitering weapons, and near-real-time battle damage assessment through updates transmitted in the final moments before the weapon strikes its target.


Source: Flight International