Digital Battlespace

Widespread use, but Link 16 integration challenges remain

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


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While Link 16 has revolutionised air operations, easing command and control and enhancing situational awareness, challenges still exist regarding its implementation. 

The Link 16 tactical data link (TDL) has become the standard communications conduit to support the air battle since its introduction throughout NATO in the late-1970s/early-1980s. Nevertheless, implementing the TDL brings its own challenges. 

The protocols for governing Link 16 are stipulated in NATO’s Standardisation Agreement 5516 (STANAG 5516). Nonetheless its usage is by no means uniform across the alliance and this can bring challenges.

‘Not all nations use all of Link 16’s implementation capabilities deeply,’ Athanasios Chouliaras, a defence and electronic warfare consultant specialising in TDLs, told Shephard.

Since its inception Link 16 has been used throughout NATO and allied nations to share track and tactical data. Concerning the latter, a Link 16 network can allow an impressive quantity of information to be exchanged among the participants. 

This can cover everything from weapons orders, targeting messages and air-to-air refuelling information to electronic warfare data; to name just four categories. 

Moreover, Chouliaras notes that not all of a nation’s platforms are necessarily outfitted with Link 16 compatible communications systems: ‘This can cause limitations to personnel familiarisation with relevant Link 16 functionalities and procedures.’

These shortcomings can cause operational ramifications. During NATO’s Operation Allied Force air campaign in 1999 over Serbia and Kosovo the US Air Force was said to have expressed frustration regarding nations who wished to participate but lacked Link 16 connectivity on their air platforms.

‘This situation causes limitations regarding the design and implementation of a comprehensive Link 16 network with all missions and roles in order to use Link 16 effectively,’ Chouliaras said.

This can have a significant and detrimental effect on the situational awareness available to air battle participants, and to the command and control of this battle in general: ‘If nations do not have platforms with Link 16 capabilities, then you can’t develop an integrated network-centric battle management system in order to provide a comprehensive tactical picture for all domains,’ Chouliaras observed. 

The net effect of this is a ‘negative situation which affects air operations and degrades joint operations interoperability and effectiveness.’

Chouliaras argued that these problems can be overcome through preparation and training: ‘common training in modern mission planning, execution and evaluation systems with joint scenarios involving multi-mission planning and assets is key to improving standardisation and collaboration problems.’

The oft quoted cliché of ‘train as you fight’ is particularly relevant in such situations: ‘Practice in a networked, operational environment in order to design appropriate Link 16 networks’ is essential, he continued. 

Chouliaras stated that it is vital to understand the roles that each Link 16 equipped platform can play during air operations and the operational requirements of the air battle therein. In addition, it is imperative to understand where there are weaknesses in approaches taken regarding Link 16 standardisation among nations and platforms, and to evaluate personnel knowledge and experience. 

Further, Chouliaras stressed that NATO takes these challenges very seriously and regularly organises exercises and evaluations involving TDLs. Regular STANAGS are also issued by the alliance ‘to enhance Link 16 systems implementation as well as operational procedures.’

The challenge in using Link 16 to its full potential maybe there, but this is not one being shirked by NATO or its members.

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