By Robbin Laird
At the recent International Fighter Conference 2019, there was much discussion of the growing salience of the combat cloud to the “next” generation of air combat power.
This discussion was subsumed within a growing emphasis on multi-domain operations, and the need for the kind of C2 which can leverage the right information at the right time to make the right decisions within a multi-domain environment with the right package of combat force.
In effect, this capability is what precedes any discussion of what a 6th generation fighter aircraft might be.
What clearly the F-35 has generated is the “renorming of airpower” which we predicted some years ago.
But what it is also generating is a significant rethink of how to fight at the speed of light in terms of high confidence data to deliver capabilities to for decisive decision making at the tactical edge.
In effect, C3 is emerging as a key driver of change Command, Control and Confidence in the most relevant ISR data is required at the tactical edge to make the decisions necessary to prevail in the evolving battlespace.
At the International Fighter Conference 2019, Lt. General David Nahom, Director of Strategic Plans and Programs, for the USAF, underscored that a core focus in shaping the evolution of USAF airpower was upon joint all-domain command and control.
He argued that “we are building the high-speed highway on which to put the trucks.”
The focus in his perspective needs to be upon building the C2/ISR infrastructure where “we can all work together.”
The approach to shaping an advanced battle “manger” is no longer focused on a specific air platform, AWACS, Joint Starts or the like.
It is now focused on crafting, leveraging and evolving a distributed system which draw upon the “high-speed data highway.”
Obviously, in such an approach, machine-to-machine interactions and artificial intelligence enabled decision making are foundational elements. And with a “high speed data highway” focus enabled by the fifth-generation transition; the next generation fighter is not likely to be a single “truck” but a family of systems.
Clearly, a key component of the new high build out is already here and key element of the F-35 global fleet, namely, the CNI.
The significant impact of an INTEGRATED CNI solution simply is not part of the strategic discourse about the evolution of the U.S. and allied combat forces in a way that gets out of a fifth-generation marketing pitch, qua fifth gen.
It is not about fifth generation, it is about shaping the “high speed data highway” which the F-35 global enterprise can provide support to task forces engaged in an area of interest and enabling a key aspect of a targeted “combat cloud.”
By DoD putting in motion the effort to build the F-35, the program has forced DoD to integrate its core combat fighter in ways that would not otherwise have occurred.
The CNI is to combat air as the smartphone is to the original Nokia mobile phone.
And it would NOT have happened without the F-35 program driving the need and the requirement.
Sensor fusion enabled by machine to machine operations and expanded by integratability across an F-35 fleet is a significant driver of air superiority now and lays down the way to the future being hypothesized at conferences like IFC 2019.
As the cards within the CNI are updated, modernized or transformed, along with the capabilities contained on those cards, and any accompanying hardware changes made, not only can an F-35 as a combat asset itself improve.
But the technology upgraded on that aircraft can reshape the combat elements on the air, sea or land which can benefit directly to F-35 connectivity and those demonstrated capabilities can inform decisions with regard to modernization or transformation of other combat assets which can employ similar variants of the new systems contained within the CNI.
Put in blunt terms, the integrated capability delivered by the CNI within the F-35 fleet is a key driver of change for the C2/ISR “highway” able to empower the integrated distributed force and deliver C3.
After the IFC 2019, I had a chance to discuss with Scott Rosebush of Cubic Mission Solutions, a company focused on enhancing capabilities for C2 and ISR at the tactical edge, including with regard to the F-35 and CNI.
We discussed how such a highway might be built out leveraging where we are today, and how emergent capabilities today can provide a way ahead with regard to this C2/ISR “highway” building effort.
Rosebush started the discussion by describing the vision of a High Capacity Backbone or HCB.
“The idea is to equip a select set of nodes with high throughput data links that could encapsulate data and pass it amongst themselves in a reliable way.
“Any node on the network to which the HCB nodes subscribes would then be able to access the date on the HCB.”
He argued that this would bring the power of the cloud into multi-domain operations.
We discussed the combat cloud at length comparing the viability of network architectures that feature an enterprise network like a commercial WAN as compared a numerous set of smaller networks optimized for a particular task force that could potential be connected by a backbone.
The HCB could be built to facilitate this approach.
According to Rosebush: “By connecting multiple combat clouds, fusion applications could be generated to empower the combat force.”
Rather than simply networking data, information and domain knowledge would be available to the tailored combat force through fusion applications including those empowered by artificial intelligence.
He underscored that the underlying HCB technology needed to realize the 21st century vision is ready for fielding now.
Advancements in phased array antennas paired with sophisticated digital beam forming technology enables the ability to produce and maintain numerous simultaneous high bandwidth directional communications links.
These solutions facilitate opportunities for data relays, networking bridging, and data format conversions leading to resilient and robust multi-domain networks.
The HCB highway can also be used to pass data that would traditionally be sent over congested time division multiple access networks like Link 16 freeing up capacity on those legacy networks.
Cybersecurity is a necessary focus area for the future of networked C2 and ISR objectives as well.
“The flip side to connectivity and interoperability is vulnerability to cyber-attack” said Rosebush.
He believes there isn’t a silver bullet to ensure cybersecurity for the combat cloud, but instead thinks that “a mindful application of defense-in-depth principles and solutions while taking advantage of factors like the use of cryptography and directionality of the links can lead to an ultimately agreeable resultant security posture for the warfighter.”
Rosebush argued that HCB technology is ready to field – with mass adoption feasible in the one to three year timeframe.
He then focused on the next round of capability – the three to six-year time horizon — which he argued was in the domain of free space optical communications (aka laser-comm).
“Historically, the challenges associated with the precise pointing and tracking required to acquire and maintain FSOC links between dynamic platforms have been too problematic to overcome for mature solutions.
But with recent technology advances in these fields as well, the ability to point, acquire, and hold FSOC links on moving platforms is increasingly feasible.
A realistic long-term goal is to combine the laser communication options with a smart RF node to provide for hybrid data links.”
In short, creating and enabling a cluster of data transportation solution sets or the data highway system is the “next” platform.
And in the course of doing so the redesign of platforms and what is expected from new platforms will be a work in progress.
The featured graphic is from the briefing of Lt. General David Nahom given at the International Fighter Conference 2019.