Digital Battlespace

Future of contested battlespace points to directional communications

10th June 2019 - 13:00 GMT | by Tim Fish in Auckland


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The future of battlespace communications, particularly in the air domain, is seeing a trend towards direct platform-to-platform transmission as the capabilities of near-peer and peer adversaries render current systems increasingly susceptible to intercept.

Fifth-generation stealth fighters in particular could run the risk of exposure in connecting to legacy data link systems for battlespace communications when operating in contested environments.

Anjali Ramachandra, director of business development for international campaigns at Northrop Grumman, told Shephard that the OEM has expertise in low-probability-of-detection and low-probability-of-intercept waveforms – like the Intra-Flight Data Link on the F-22 and the Multi-function Advanced Data Link on the F-35 – that can deal with threats from near-peer adversaries and meet the mission needs of different aircraft operators.

Although F-22s and F-35s can communicate with each other stealthily, this not easily achieved with the rest of the network. Even though these aircraft can already exchange data with the older-generation aircraft and ground assets via Link 16, this will not be an option in a combat scenario as it would negate the stealthy characteristics. 

‘With the introduction of the F-35 across aircraft fleets around the world, it is creating the problem of how to communicate with fourth-generation platforms,’ Ramachandra said. 

Although this is a common issue when introducing new platforms into any military service, the focus for integrating fifth-generation aircraft is to focus on the network and its architectural design, so that when new technology becomes available it can be integrated seamlessly and make use of COTS equipment.

As future platforms develop, they ‘will continue to have [their] own language, because we want to push the envelope in terms of exploiting the capability of each of these data links and what they might provide,’ Ramachandra said. ‘Trying to communicate with platforms that are not in that same space, there will always be a gap, so it is important to look at other means to integrate and interoperate.’

There is now a trend of moving away from omni-direction communications, where signals are transmitted in all directions, towards directional communications. This is so that the information is only broadcast between two specific platforms and cannot be intercepted by anyone else. An enemy would have to be in that line of sight to be able to capture that data.

‘This is far more secure and stealthy, and that is why the F-35 communications platform network is set up to ensure that,’ Ramachandra confirmed.

However, the power and processing requirements and use of apertures to focus transmission in one direction are vastly different to what is being currently used. 

‘We are still looking at exploring how that will work, with the expectation that we will move to a laser-type approach to get from point A to point B. Some of this is still sensitive, and we are trying to figure out what the answer is to that problem,’ Ramachandra said, adding that this is a focus of future investment for Northrop Grumman.

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