DB - Digital Battlespace

Link 16 capability migrating towards infantry use

4th June 2019 - 12:00 GMT | by Thomas Withington in Toulouse

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The NATO Link 16 tactical data link (TDL) is synonymous with air operations however it is now migrating into the hands of individual soldiers, promising to make close air support yet more precise and responsive. 

Since its advent in the late 1970s/early 1980s it has been used to move track and tactical data across high frequency and very high frequency radio communications covering a bandwidth of two megahertz/MHz to 30MHz, and 225MHz to 400MHz. 

The TDL was intended to connect aircraft to one another, and with ships and land installations involved in air operations: The latter could include anti-air warfare combatants and surface-to-air missile batteries. 

Nevertheless, the ongoing march of electronics miniaturisation, matched with operational exigencies is placing Link 16 in the hands of the individual soldier. NATO-led operations in Afghanistan underscored the importance of communications between Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) and aircraft overhead providing close air support (CAS). 

Since CAS was honed and perfected during the Second World War, voice communications have been the traditional means of sharing tactical information with aircraft. NATO uses the standard so-called ‘Nine Line’ brief which contains targeting information which the JTAC reads to the pilot, the pilot writes down and then repeats to the JTAC for confirmation. 

This can be a time-consuming process with the potential for error due to misheard or broken communications. Moreover, the changing nature of combat where CAS aircraft can launch air-to-ground weapons from stand-off distances against pin-point targets in urban areas with a high risk of collateral damage has increased the need for accurate and clear communications. 

The attraction of Link 16 is that it allows targeting information to be sent to an aircraft in written form. This reduces the risk of misheard communications and ambiguity, provides a written record of the mission and reduces the pilot’s workload with the information readily presented on their displays. 

Energetic efforts to exploit the benefits of Link 16 to support the CAS mission have been expended in recent years. This has culminated in the realisation of apparatus like Viasat’s AN/PRC-161 BATS-D handheld Link 16 radio (pictured), which is now in service with the US Special Operations Command, and is the world’s first such system. 

The AN/PRC-161 is a step forward in expanding the Link 16 network into the land environment. Soldiers supporting CAS missions can send and receive tactical data with this device, while also sharing with aircraft accurate information on their position helping to reduce fratricide. Additionally, the radio can facilitate voice communications between soldiers and CAS platforms. 

As well as carrying tactical/track information, Link 16 hosts voice communications. This provides a useful additional means of communications to supplement the written data. The net effect of extending Link 16 to soldiers via handheld devices like the AN/PRC-161 is that it should help to both sharpen and accelerate CAS. 

From counter-insurgency operations to air-land manoeuvre, a key ingredient of success is the identification of key targets for attack from the air, and their rapid prosecution with kinetic effects. Placing Link 16 in the hands of the individual soldier is a significant step in this direction.

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