Digital Battlespace

SE Asian airborne data links have a long way to go

3rd July 2020 - 12:00 GMT | by Chen Chuanren in Singapore


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Despite numerous modernisation programmes in Southeast Asian air forces, their true data link capabilities still have a long way to go to reach Western standards. Limited budgets and mixed fleets have resulted in data link capabilities being handicapped or, at worse, irrelevant. 

One exception, however, is the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF).

The RSAF has the deepest knowledge of network-centric warfare, and it has been exposed to tactical data links (TDLs) since the arrival of E-2C Hawkeyes in 1987. Since the turn of the millennium, its F-16C/D fleet has been fitted with the Israeli Smart Datalink in favour of Link 16. The RSAF then ushered in a Link 16 capability with the arrival of Boeing F-15SGs in 2009, and it has been honing its utilisation in countless large-force employment drills such as Red Flag and Pitch Black.

It is widely believed the RSAF has its own indigenous TDL to communicate across all combat platforms, including the G550 AEW aircraft and naval assets. F-16s will possess Link 16 from 2021 following a midlife upgrade, and the RSAF’s situation awareness capabilities will further deepen after delivery of the first F-35B.

Thailand is hoping to catch up. The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) received Link-T in 2008, supplied by Saab with its Gripen and Saab 340 Erieye AEW order. Link-T is also found on the navy’s four frigates and carrier.

Plans are under way to install Link-T on the upgraded F-5TH fighter, known as Super Tigris. In its ten-year White Paper, the RTAF outlined TDL as a requirement in future aircraft procurements.

However, because of limited budgets, RTAF aircraft upgrade programmes take place in small phases, resulting in sparse availability of TDLs within the fleet. At the same time, the first six F-16A/B midlife upgrade fighters received Link 16. Although this might come in handy in interoperability drills like Cope Tiger and Pitch Black with the RSAF and USAF, it is incompatible with Link-T and its own AEW aircraft.

Similarly, Malaysia upgraded Boeing F/A-18D Hornets with Link 16, but it has no opportunity to utilise it within the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF). The RMAF continues to rely on voice radio communication to coordinate tactics between Hornets, Hawk 208s and Su-30s.

Shephard understands from F/A-18 pilots that the squadron learned a great deal in employing TDLs in multilateral exercise like Pitch Black, but opportunities to participate have been few.

The 24 ex-USAF F-16C/D Block 32 fighters in service with the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) have reportedly been refurbished with data links for improved situational awareness. However, the new F-16A/B Falcon STAR upgrade programme between PTDI and Lockheed Martin still lacks data links. Hence, unless the TNI-AU starts building TDL ground receivers in key installations or naval ships, F-16C/Ds will not exploit the full potential of data links across the large archipelago.

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