Crafting 21st Century Integrated Air-Enabled Combat Capability: The MADL Contribution


2014-10-28 By Robbin Laird

In a recent interview, Lou Kratz, underscored the core strategic point concerning what the F-35 deployed as a fleet can contribute:

When the program that we recognize today as the F-35 was first conceived, there was a national and international recognition of the need for rapid coalition response capabilities.  And that drove both the air system and the sustainment system designed to enable that capability. 

The joint and coalition force is not looking for interoperability; we were looking for force integration. 

And the current ACC Commander, General Hostage, has underscored how important Lighting IIs working together are for understanding how the aircraft will operate and enhance their lethality as a weapons system.

Question: One of the concepts we’ve played with was what we called the S Cubed, which is the tradeoffs between sensors, stealth, and speed.  And how you played them off against one another.  Does that make sense?

General Hostage: It does. I think an excellent portrayal of the value of looking at the interaction of those parameters is to examine Raptor versus the Lightning.  A Raptor at 50-plus thousand feet at Mach 2 with its RCS has a different level of invulnerability than a Lightning at 35,000 at Mach .9 and it’s RCS.

The altitude, speed, and stealth combined in the two platforms, they give the airplanes two completely different levels of capability.  The plan is to normalize the Lightning’s capability relative to the Raptor by marrying it up with six, or seven, or eight other Lightnings.

The advanced fusion of the F-35 versus the F-22 means those airplanes have an equal level or better level of invulnerability than the Raptors have, but it takes multiple airplanes to do it because of the synergistic fused attacks of their weapon systems.

And that’s the magic of the fifth gen F-35, but it takes numbers of F-35s to get that effect, that’s why I’ve been so strident on getting the full buy.  Because if they whittle it down to a little tiny fleet like the Raptor, it’s not going to be compelling.

A key element shaping integrated air-enabled combat capability for the evolving F-35 fleet is clearly the communications and data link system built into the aircraft.

One of the core combat capabilities built into the aircraft is the CNI system or the Communications, Navigation and Identification system.

According a press release from Northrop Grumman in early 2013 as flight tests validated the CNI system, its role was highlighted:

The Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) waveform developed by Northrop Grumman Corporation was successfully demonstrated in a Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter program flight test, validating an eight-year development effort to advance communication among fifth-generation aircraft.

MADL is a high-data-rate, directional communications link. It allows coordinated tactics and engagement to bring significant operational advantages to fifth-generation aircraft operating in high-threat environments. MADL is a key capability provided by Northrop Grumman’s F-35 integrated communications, navigation and identification (CNI) avionics.

The F-35 CNI avionics flying onboard two Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft established the MADL link between two airborne platforms for the first time. Data passed between aircraft via MADL was correlated with data from other F-35 sensors by Lockheed Martin’s fusion system to form a simplified situational awareness picture on the cockpit displays.

“During the flight tests, MADL functioned reliably with excellent range at multiples of required specifications while demonstrating ability to network fifth-generation fighters,” said Mike Twyman, (former) vice president and general manager of the Defense Systems division for Northrop Grumman Information Systems. “This success is a significant achievement for the F-35 program and enabling joint aerial concept of operations.”

The MADL flight test is an important element of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Block 2 software release, which provides advanced mission systems capability at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and other training and operational locations.

To get an update on the MADL data link within the CNI system, an interview was conducted in late July 2014 with two former USAF pilots and officers, who now work with Northrop Grumman, where MADL has been developed, to discuss its status and evolution and the approach to moving forward.

Fred Cheney is now a director of business development for Northrop Grumman Information Systems Communications Division, and formerly served with the USAF in the Pacific and Iraq operations.

Mike Edwards, a former USAF commander as well, is a director on staff with Northrop Grumman Corporation.

Question: What is MADL?

Fred Cheney: MADL stands for Multi-Function Advanced Data Link.

It operates in what is now being called anti-access and area denial operations where low observable capability is clearly crucial to mission success and you are linking those elements most central to shaping an entry and dominance strategy.

Its origins are from the communications and data links built for the F-22.

The IFDLlink has been designed to allow F-22s to work with other F-22s to enhance low observable performance.

It is designed to have Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) and Low Probability of Detection (LPD).

the F-35 and F-22 are seen flying together at Eglin AFB.  These photos were shot on September 9, 2012 and are credited to Major Karen Roganov, Team Eglin PA, 33rd FW and Sgt. Jeremy Lock.
The F-35 and F-22 are seen flying together at Eglin AFB. These photos were shot on September 9, 2012 and are credited to Major Karen Roganov, Team Eglin PA, 33rd FW and Sgt. Jeremy Lock. 

When the F-35 was being designed, designers were looking for that same kind of LPI and LPD capability but wanted to correct some of the shortfalls identified.

It is also the case that the F-35 was designed from the ground up to share data among the fleet and to operate in the combat environment in an integrated manner to deliver combat effects.

MADL is a different system than that carried by the F-22 and has longer-range, better throughput, and shares more data to support both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.

The point though is that MADL has been built on experience with the F-22; it is not just a system that was built simply from briefing charts.

And when the F-35 was first conceived, the legacy high-low mix was in the forefront.

Question: The F-35 and its combat systems have evolved and the impact of an integrated fleet of F-35s contemplated, the F-35 has emerged as a foundational 21st century capability.

You are not thinking high-low mix anymore; you are really thinking in terms of fleets, F-35, F-22, and legacy and the way to provide for better force integration going forward.

This means that clearly you are looking at ways to work on cross-linking as well?

Fred  Cheney: We are. On the Gulfstream II, we were able to connect F-35s and F-22s, because the new terminal actually has both Intra-Flight Data-Link (IFDL) and MADL in it.

Using that airplane, we were able to connect to both types of airplanes at the same time and transfer data between F-22s and F-35s.

In fact, MADL was designed based on prior experience with the F-22 to shape an integrated waveform for low observable operations, and can be leveraged for working to support combat operations throughout a joint or coalition force.

Question: But it seems clear that because the F-35 is an air-to-ground platform, MADL has been thought of differently, I would assume? 

It seems clear that one is looking to leverage data and information for combat effectiveness via MADL.

Fred Cheney: It is.  In fact, it is best to think of the integrated impact of an F-35 fleet to be understood best as an information superiority combat capability.

And one is looking to ways to leverage its evolution as an information superiority fleet – versus simply an air platform providing situational awareness.

A way to look at the way ahead is to focus on the fleet working with joint or coalition C2 nodes to inform the leadership of the joint and coalition force of the evolving combat situation and to deliver effects throughout the rapidly evolving combat situation.

We are not thinking here in terms of information going to a centralized Air Combat Operations Center; we are thinking in terms of evolving distributed approaches, which allow combat to be directed and supported by resilient networks.

Clearly, an F-35 fleet can deliver integrated combat capability with the MADL sharing tool set; and then the question is how best to connect C2 nodes with that fleet, and how best to move relevant information from the fleet to appropriate combat elements.

There is no reason you cannot put MADL on ships, on other planes or on ground receivers.

In fact, as I mentioned before we recently tested a MADL radio system aboard a Gulfstream II and with F-35s, demonstrating one can now have a MADL-to-MADL link to other platforms.

OSD has deemed MADL to be the anti-access waveform, so finding ways to operate the waveform among forces will be important going forward.

It can also be overlooked that with MADL and the global F-35 enterprise we have created a coalition sharing integrated capability, which has never been done before.

It may be through the evolution of C2 nodes that MADL will be linked to the legacy fleet as well.

With the emergence of an initial MADL system, why wouldn’t you reuse that?

Why wouldn’t you start to pull that MADL waveform into other nodes, given that it is already paid for by the F-35 program, as well as inherently coalition common?

[slidepress gallery=’the-f-35-tanking-and-the-fleet’]

Question: Clearly putting the F-35 fleet into the hands of the war fighters will see significant change and probably more rapidly than people anticipate? 

How do you think of the role of the USMC in all of this and the positive impact of the USMC being a lead service in deploying the first F-35 squadrons?

Mike Edwards: It is very positive in one very important way: the Marines are a smaller and more tightly integrated force.

They will work very hard to draw every capability they can out of a combat system, and in this sense, the F-35 will be no different.

But given its integrated combat capability, figuring out how to leverage it for the overall integrated Marine Corps force will be a high priority for them.

And this can also see a similar process with coalition partners.

Because with a smaller force, they will be looking at how are they going to reapply what they have in their tool kit to solve those problems? 

And that’s where the new think starts to occur.

Question: We have been looking at how the Marines have evolved their KC-130Js and have deployed Harvest Hawk. 

One USMC pilot highlighted that in his mind, there is no reason that they could not have MADL on board and distribute what is relevant to the ground forces as part of their approach to close air support.

Would the system you are testing be relevant to this possibility?

Mike Edwards: Indeed, it would, and it gets to the most fundamental point – where the C2 node is can vary; but having a robust data and communications link which is empowered by an integrated fleet of combat aircraft, provides significant possibilities for innovation.

And we are on the cusp of significant innovations.

Three F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, and two AV-8B Harriers with Marine Attack Squadron 211, 3rd MAW, fly in a “V” formation during  fixed-wing aerial refueling training over eastern California, Aug. 27. The F-35B joint strike fighters practiced refueling with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352.  (Photo by Lance Cpl. Michael Thorn)
Three F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, and two AV-8B Harriers with Marine Attack Squadron 211, 3rd MAW, fly in a “V” formation during fixed-wing aerial refueling training over eastern California, Aug. 27. The F-35B joint strike fighters practiced refueling with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Michael Thorn) 

We are the period of discovery with what we can do with MADL and an integrated air combat fleet of F-35s can deliver to the combat force.

We don’t even know yet what the full potential is.

And we may not know for a while until we hit one of those hard problems.

And then some young, bright person says hey, you know what?  If we did X, Y, and Z, we could actually solve this problem. 

And we have cases of that occurring all the time in combat situations.

And that’s one of the things that I think makes our military so great.

Fred Cheney: There is another aspect of the way ahead which is important to highlight as well, and that is logistics costs.

The Link 16 experience demonstrates how quasi-commonality limits supportability.

There are many vendors of Link 16 terminals all around the world, and you then lose the advantage of having economies of scale.

And you think logistics isn’t very exciting or interesting, but it takes a lot of dollars that you would rather spend on combat capabilities if you do not leverage commonality and global sourcing of common parts.

And commonality is both important and a continuing challenge.

Commonality is built into the aircraft; the challenge will be keep commonality built in, for there will be the temptation to think this is a replacement aircraft and data system, and there will be tendency to think in terms of interoperability rather than integration provided by an F-35 fleet where the various services and partners can seamlessly share data and provide information to the C2 nodes, which will evolve appropriate to 21st century operations.

You’ve got to be careful, however, that you don’t develop a problem like Link 16 has with interoperability.

People started to tinker with it, and all of a sudden we lost track of being able to talk with every coalition partner, and the Air Force being able to talk to Navy.

It’s very important to do improvements, but they must be done as a fleet.

Editor’s Note: In the slideshow above, in photos provided by the 33rd Fighter Wing, F-35As are being tanked by a KC-135, in the summer of 2013.

The photos were shot from the tanker during the tanking operation.