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WASHINGTON: Starting in December, the Air Force will try new network technology in real-world experiments every four months, the service’s new chief architect said today. The initial experiment next month will take three small but crucial steps towards the military’s goal of a comprehensive Multi-Domain Command & Control network linking all four services across all five domains, land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace:
- New ways to share data between aircraft and ground forces (this one is tentative);
- A cloud-based common operational picture that tracks where friendly forces are and displays a map of their constantly updated positions;
- The highest-profile piece, a communications link that finally allows F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters to share data without giving away their position.
“I Iike the F-22/F-35 [experiment], because it’s a problem that everybody recognizes and everybody says, ‘oh, it’s really hard to do,” Preston Dunlap told me after discussing the effort at the Defense One conference here. ”I want to prove we actually can do hard things.”
Why is this so difficult? As stealth aircraft whose whole raison d’être is to evade detection, the F-22 and F-35 would rather not use conventional radios to communicate in combat because the transmissions are too easy for an enemy to pick up. So both jets use so-called Low Probability of Detection/Low Probability of Interception (LPD/LPI) communications – but they each use different ones that operate on different frequencies with incompatible software. F-22s use a unique Intra-Flight Data Link (IFDL) that works only with other F-22s, while the newer F-35s use the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL), which can only talk to other F-35s.
Dunlap wouldn’t detail the approach his team is using to connect the two aircraft, but it involves a gadget called a “gateway” that effectively translates between IFDL and MADL. It’s also very, very nascent, he cautioned.
“It’s not 100 percent done. This is going to be like the 10 percent solution,” Dunlap told me. While he’s taking inspiration from the rapid-fire cycles known in the IT sector as DevOps (Development/Operations), the December experiment will not necessarily even be what the Silicon Valley would call “a minimum viable product.”
“Nothing will be solved in December,” he said. The goal is to get something that works well enough to test in real-world conditions and get feedback from real pilots. Then you take that data and improve your 10 percent solution to 12 percent, or 15 percent, or higher, and run the improved version through another test four months later – then rinse and repeat every four months until you get something good enough to field to actual combat forces.
“Really, December’s going to baseline the state of play and what’s available,” Dunlap told me. “Then we’ll come again in March/April with the lessons that we’ve learned out of that.”
“There’s nothing magical about four months, but the point is that we want to make sure we’re not losing the momentum going forward,” he said.
Over time, Dunlap aims to add more and more pieces to the project. His ultimate goal is to have something happening every four months in each of a half-dozen areas.
“I’ve got six product categories that we care a lot about,” he told me. “We want to be able to integrate sensors. We want to get data off of them. We want to secure the process. We want to be able to put applications [on the system] and connect capability and people together. And we want to output an effect.” (“Effect” is military jargon for anything from publishing a press release, to jamming a radar, to hacking a network, to blowing everything up).
“Across all those lines of effort, every four months we want those to be able to pull into an integrated set of exercises and operational scenarios,” he said. “Ideally, there’d be something from each of those” in each experiment.
“Some folks could say….it seems like that takes a lot of faith,” said Dunlap, a self-described “evangelist” for the new approach. “But it’s actually less faith [than a traditional 10-year procurement program], because you’re going to see faith become sight every four months.”
“You’ll to get to see the capability grow,” he told me, “and you can easily off-ramp things that aren’t working and on-ramp things that are starting to work.”