A communications system that can translate messages between the US Air Force’s most advanced and oldest fighters is back on the service’s expedited shopping list, according to a recent acquisition notice.
The Air Force Lifecycle Management Center (AFLCMC) is asking suppliers to provide information about how they could deliver and integrate a “5th to 4th Generation Gateway” system on the USAF’s fighters within 12 months.
Details of the USAF’s technical requirements for the gateway system are stamped “for official use only” in a 23 October request for information issued by AFLCMC, so are not publicly disclosed.
The RFI represents the “government's market research to assess the current state of existing technical capabilities and interest from industry to provide a 5th Generation to 4th Generation Gateway operational capability in 12 months on airborne platforms,” the AFLCMC says to FlightGlobal.
But the need for a system that can translate coded messages in stealth mode between fifth generation fighters, such as Lockheed Martin F-22s and F-35s, and fourth generation fighters, including Boeing F-15s and Lockheed F-16s, has been known for a long time.
The F-22 uses the intraflight data link (IFDL) to communicate with other F-22s in stealth mode with a low probability of detection or interception. The F-35 uses the multifunction advanced data link (MADL) for the same purpose, but only with other F-35s. Neither the IFDL or MADL is compatible with data links by so-called “fourth-generation” fighters, such as Link-16 and Link-11, which send encrypted messages using waveforms that can be detected by adversaries.
Developing a system that can bridge that gap has been pursued for more than a decade. In 2008, the USAF demonstrated that an F-22’s IFDL waveform could be translated into a waveform that could be received by Link-16. The demonstration used the Northrop Grumman Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN). That system is now fielded on USAF E-11s and RQ-4s, but still lacks the ability to bridge the IFDL and Link-16 waveforms operationally.
In responses to questions by FlightGlobal, the AFLCMC emphasises that the new RFI is not limited to potential new applications of the BACN gateway system.