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Emerging Tanker Roles and Risks in the Advanced Battle Management System Era

Wild Blue Yonder --

This research paper was written from the perspective of a current KC-46 pilot (11M) who was formerly an E-3 AWACS aircraft commander. The core focus of this research paper is to focus on the integration of tanker aircraft into the ABMS infrastructure and the potential issues that could arise for aircrew when these new technologies reach operational units. The experiences of the new KC-46 community provide some insight into how new systems are being fielded and how those experiences can be used to address issues that have not been addressed yet for ABMS development.

Abstract

This Air University Advanced Research paper focuses on the changing mission roles of the tanker fleet in the approaching era of the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) and some of the risks that may be present for aircrews. With the sensors and enhanced communications systems that the KC-46 provides and continued upgrades to the KC-135, ABMS will upend the old notion of a tanker being only a flying gas station. An ABMS integrated tanker will be a multi-role aircraft capable of providing gas and data to battlefield assets. With the ability to connect to satellite constellations, tankers will provide a means to bridge the gap from line-of-sight to beyond line-of-sight communications across an entire battlefield. Multiple airborne ABMS integrated tankers will also provide a redundant mesh network to share the massive amount of data that will be streamed to and from the battlefield. Development of the hardware and software needed to implement the ABMS vision is currently underway through multiple developmental avenues and tests such as Global Lightning, commercialONE, and apertureONE. The vision of ABMS will change the role of tankers, but it will enhance the situational awareness of all Mobility Air Force (MAF) aircraft significantly. While ABMS may look like an amazing solution to create a next-generation Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) architecture, it does have potential vulnerabilities and risks. Utilizing commercial systems does accelerate development timelines, but also comes with the risks of hacking and easy jamming ability. User interfaces with the ABMS network and operator training must be intuitive and simple. If not, then the massive amount of data from ABMS could be more of a detriment than an asset to operators. If the vulnerabilities and risks can be addressed, ABMS will provide a revolutionary command and control architecture that will give the United States a decisive edge in future conflicts.

Emerging Tanker Roles and Risks in the ABMS Era

As the United States pivots from two decades of counter-insurgency operations in the Middle East to focus on the Great Powers competition, it has become clear that the current battlefield command and control infrastructure does not leverage the latest advancements in technology. Integrating recent advancements in artificial intelligence and high-speed network technology into our JADC2 architecture would provide a decisive edge against our potential adversaries. To include these new capabilities, the Air Force has begun developing and testing a whole new JADC2 architecture called ABMS. ABMS is an effort to digitally connect all elements of the US military, from sensors to shooters, across all services and all five warfighting domains: air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace. Building a successful new JADC2 architecture will require a cloud-based digital architecture that will vastly increase the speed of data sharing and decision-making.1 In 2019, Former Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein stated that the goal of the new JADC2 development effort is to produce multiple dilemmas for our adversaries in such a way that it overwhelms them, and they decide not to engage us in the first place.2 To ensure these overwhelming dilemmas for our adversaries will exist, the role of tanker aircraft should be expanded beyond their current mission set. The digital architecture of ABMS provides a clear pathway for multirole tankers to provide high fidelity sensor data and be a communications hub in a distributed mesh network, increasing connectivity and battlefield awareness across all platforms. By examining the current efforts to integrate the KC-46 and KC-135 into the JADC2 architecture, we can glimpse what these aircraft will be capable of in the ABMS era.

The Air Force’s newest tanker aircraft, the KC-46, provides new capabilities that no other tanker aircraft possesses. Enhanced survivability features are included in the design of the KC-46 to ensure operations in more contested environments than were previously possible for tanker aircraft. These features include large aircraft infrared countermeasures, the ALR-69A radar warning receiver, and a tactical situational awareness system (TSAS). These aircraft systems are intended to compile threat information from the on-board and off-board sources to enhance crew situational awareness and decision-making on the battlefield.3 In addition, the data collected from the onboard sensors of the KC-46 can be sent via Link-16 to enhance the overall tactical picture in real-time. Meanwhile, the Air Force is also looking to modernize a portion of the KC-135 fleet with Link-16 and enhanced communications equipment. These enhancements are called the Real Time Information in the Cockpit (RTIC) system. However, these KC-135 modernization efforts are not without their limitations. The KC-135 does not have the sensors that the KC-46 possesses, so RTIC would be a receive-only system and not provide any data to the tactical picture. In addition, for the time being, there is only funding to equip 50 of the 398 KC-135s with RTIC, so this enhancement will only equip a small portion of the KC-135 fleet.4 The current abilities of the KC-46 and the effort to modernize the KC-135 show an effort by the Air Force to expand the tanker mission beyond air refueling and cargo. New technologies and a groundbreaking JADC2 architecture provide an avenue to equip tankers with a new set of sensors and communications equipment that not only enhance the situational awareness of the crews but enhance the tactical picture of every asset on the battlefield.

Air Mobility Command is already exploring how to integrate tankers into the ABMS architecture as a sensor platform and communications node. Lieutenant General Jon Thomas has stated, “We have to build a network force that supports the ABMS architecture…On a theater-level, air mobility can significantly contribute to that, and I would say that it starts with the tanker.”5 Tanker aircraft are well suited to be used as communications nodes in the ABMS architecture. Large tanker aircraft have the excess space and electrical power that would be required for a new antenna and communications hardware needed to connect to the ABMS network. This fairly straightforward ability to include new hardware makes tankers ideal for the ABMS upgrades. Additionally, tankers fly relatively close to the front lines during combat to ensure airborne assets don’t have to stay out of the fight for very long while refueling. By being so close to the battlefield, a tanker may have line-of-sight communications with numerous other aircraft and many surface assets as well. If a tanker had the communications equipment to pass this data to satellites, then it could provide a pathway to bridge line-of-sight communications to beyond line-of-sight communications for numerous assets.6 If a multitude of tankers in an area of operations had these enhanced abilities, the United States would have a mesh network of multiple tanker communications nodes passing data to and from assets all over the battlefield. Dr. Will Roper, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisitions, Technology, and Logistics, has stated:

“I do like the idea of topping up on data while you’re topping up on gas. It makes a lot of sense to me, especially if that fighter or Next Generation Air Dominance platform is coming out of the fight, if it has had comms denied there…Coming out and getting the latest data might be something it needs to do completely separate from needing to get gas. This may be an important concept of operations.”7

These proposals of how ABMS integrated tanker aircraft would fit into the larger ABMS architecture are a departure from tanker operations of the past. They propose a tanker of the future that provides gas and data to whoever needs it on the battlefield. These ideas are not only theoretical, they are being tested today through multiple avenues.

Currently, multiple proofs of concept tests have been accomplished with MAF aircraft using technologies required for full integration into ABMS. The Air Force Research Laboratory is currently testing commercial space-based internet service on KC-135 and AC-130 aircraft to see determine effectively they can connect and share data through a program called “Global Lightning.” This USAF program has partnered with companies such as SpaceX, OneWeb, Iridium, and others to install satellite internet receivers on Air Force aircraft for testing.8 The goal is to determine if the Air Force would be better off leasing commercial space internet service rather than invest large amounts of time and energy into its own dedicated hardware for the same purpose. A test in 2018, conducted using a C-12 Huron and SpaceX Starlink satellites, demonstrated download speeds of 610 megabits per second. Download speeds such as that seen during the test are orders of magnitude higher than what is currently possible using current networks and aircraft hardware. As the Global Lightning tests continue, it will be expanded and accelerated through the ABMS product line called commercialONE. These satellite systems will use constellations of thousands of satellites to connect millions of users to satellite-based internet around the globe. The ABMS vision is to create a high bandwidth, layered, and mesh network that can self-heal from adversary attacks. These commercial satellite constellations make the ABMS vision possible in the near future.9

The multiple satellite internet providers will all use different frequency bands to prevent interference and therefore will each need their own special antenna for reception. Adding a new antenna to every aircraft for each new service would be highly impractical and expensive. To create a universal solution to this, the ABMS product apertureONE is being developed. ApertureONE is a unique antenna adapted for satellite communications that will be agnostic of the service provider.10 One aircraft hardware modification that would cover all potential satellite providers would save an immense amount of time and money for aircraft hardware changes as well as add flexibility. For example, if an aircraft is currently using SpaceX’s Starlink service and the signal becomes degraded, then the antenna could switch to a different service such as OneWeb or others that have a stronger connection.

The end results of commercialONE and apertureONE development will provide high-speed, low latency data speed connections for Air Force aircraft. The integration of these ABMS products into the tanker fleet will result in the mesh network of sensors and redundant communications nodes needed in a future conflict. This will fundamentally change the mission of tanker aircraft in future conflicts, but it will also fundamentally change how all MAF aircraft communicate. In addition to tanker aircraft, other MAF aircraft have also been included in ABMS testing. In April, a C-17 ABMS experiment facilitated an in-flight re-tasking of airdropped cargo. In a separate test this year, an airborne C-17 received updates on ground targets and passed the data to a Marine HIMARS rocket launcher in its cargo hold. This allowed the Marines to reprogram their missile to strike the updated locations during flight, then quickly set up and fire the missiles upon landing.11 These tests barely scratch the surface for what is possible with the flexibility and information these data connections can bring to the fight. While already airborne, MAF crews could get real-time weather updates, be alerted to new threats, and get mission changes because of the constant data connection that ABMS will provide.

While ABMS may seem like a near-perfect solution to digitally interconnect all MAF aircraft, it does not come without inherent risks and potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited by adversaries. Hardware upgrades to aircraft present a large and expensive risk to making these systems possible. ABMS is built on a completely new digital cloud architecture, and it will require a new antenna and computer hardware on every aircraft to allow crews to access the network. As stated before, apertureONE would allow connection to multiple satellite internet constellations and would only require one new antenna for each aircraft. However, this upgrade would still need to be performed across hundreds of MAF aircraft. It would require a large amount of funding and time to add the antenna, wiring, and hardware to every aircraft.

The utilization of commercial satellite constellations has many positive aspects that would accelerate the development and implementation of ABMS, but also has inherent vulnerabilities of a commercial system. A commercial system is inherently not as secure for communications as a separate and encrypted military system. By having an “internet” connection on every aircraft, it could open aircraft to the possibility of hacking. In addition, the commercial signal would not be jam-resistant and could possibly even be degraded by weather or turbulence. These constellations will provide a flexible high-speed data connection for aircraft, but there are vulnerabilities inherent to the commercial systems that must be addressed before widespread adoption for ABMS.

Beyond risks that our adversaries could exploit, there is also an inherent risk of ABMS providing too much information at once to an operator and becoming a detriment to situational awareness, instead of an asset. An operator accessing the system will need an intuitive and simple user interface that can easily access the currently relevant data and be able to filter out data that is not needed. This is similar to a recent problem seen in the KC-46. The original TSAS user interface used to manage data from sensors and Link 16 was poorly designed. It could take 20 or more clicks to change one setting or filter. During testing, it even got to a point where both pilots got so distracted trying to change settings in TSAS that they lost track of who was in control of the aircraft. The buttons and text were small and hard to select with the mouse and in turbulence, using TSAS would have been extremely difficult. The massive flaws in the design of the KC-46 TSAS interface were determined to be so bad that the entire TSAS interface was re-designed by Boeing with input from KC-46 pilots. This recent lesson learned from the KC-46 community highlights what must be done to ensure that the data received from ABMS is actually usable by the operators. The design of the ABMS user interface must be designed to be simple, intuitive, and with operator input during development if it is to be successful. If the user interface is developed with these things in mind, ABMS will provide crucial data to MAF aircrews in a manner that will enhance their airborne situational awareness like never before.

There is also a question of how aircrew will receive training and get proficient on these new ABMS systems. Aircrew will need to be intimately familiar with these systems in a battlefield environment to use them effectively. In the KC-46 community at the moment, there is no way to get proficient in the use of the TSAS other than on an actual aircraft. Pilots currently have no way to train on TSAS other than while flying or utilizing training jets that have been specifically prepared for ground training of TSAS by maintenance personnel. Both of these training pathways for TSAS are highly inefficient as one takes away from the focus flying training and the other adds extra work for maintenance personnel. The KC-46 community is working to address this training deficiency by creating a computer-based based TSAS familiarization software. This will provide the ability for crews can get proficient with TSAS before ever flying on the KC-46, but this software is early in the stages of development. For ABMS, there needs to be a similar approach to this software being developed for KC-46 TSAS familiarization. The ABMS hardware for each MAF platform must have a robust computer-based training course to ensure crews are highly proficient in their ability to utilize everything the system has to offer before using it on a mission. This will prevent issues like those seen in the KC-46 community, with no ability to train on the TSAS unless on an aircraft. ABMS will require a robust training program to allow MAF aircrews to understand the ABMS infrastructure and their specific aircraft interface to ensure that the system is utilized to its full potential.

There is an inherent risk in the fledgling ABMS infrastructure. ABMS is a developing and rapidly changing program that will revolutionize the JADC2 architecture. It requires a whole new cloud-based “internet” system, hardware, software, buy-in from all branches of the military, and adequate funding to bring it to reality. There are lots of moving pieces and products in the ABMS architecture that must coalesce to bring the ABMS vision to maturity and a slowdown in any number of parts could spell disaster for the whole enterprise.

Conclusion

The coming age of ABMS will revolutionize the JADC2 architecture of the United States military. Every asset on the battlefield will be interconnected through a meshed network of data streams that will allow for near-instantaneous communications and changes across an entire theatre of operations. Within the ABMS construct, the role of tanker aircraft will morph from a pure mobility platform into a multi-role aircraft consisting of sensors and a communications node for air, land, sea, and space assets. Multiple tankers in a combat zone will provide redundant ways for the ABMS network to be accessed by assets on the battlefield. Developmental testing to implement this new tanker role has already begun in earnest with programs such as Global Lightning, commercialONE, and apertureONE in development to mature this technology before it is fielded across the MAF. While the ABMS future for MAF assets looks bright, it does include risks and vulnerabilities that have to be addressed before deployment to operational units. The vulnerabilities of using a commercial satellite system, the design of a useful user interface, the ability for operators to train and get proficient with ABMS systems, and the uncertainty in the future of the ABMS program are all concerning. If all of these issues can be addressed early with operator input, the timeline to field ABMS could be accelerated. Once operational, ABMS will provide all MAF crews with increased situational awareness and capabilities that will enable warfighters to make effective split-second decisions that are critical on the battlefield of tomorrow.

Captain Taylor R. Johnson

Captain Taylor R. Johnson (MS, Florida Institute of Technology; BS, USAF Academy) is currently a KC-46 Initial Operational Test & Evaluation pilot assigned to the 344th Air Refueling Squadron at McConnell AFB, KS. Previously he was assigned as an E-3 AWACS pilot where he accumulated 1400 flight hours and over 650 combat hours in support of operations in the Middle East. During his flying career, he has participated in multiple NATO and US exercises across the world as well as supported counter-drug operations in the Caribbean. His previous experience as a C2ISR pilot is contributing to new perspectives on the future combat capabilities of the KC-46.

Senior mentors contributing to the research topic (December 2020):
Colonel Theresa Weems (USAF), Air War College, Dean of Students
Major Justin Borgerding (USAF), Air University Advanced Research Group Facilitator
Captain Donald Clabaugh (USAF), 344th Air Refueling Squadron, KC-46 Pilot

Notes

1 Office of the Chief Architect, Department of the Air Force, ABMS Fact Sheet (USAF Pentagon, 2020).

2 Gen David L Goldfein, USAF Role in Joint All-Domain Operations, Curtis E. LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Education, 5 March 2020.

3 Robert F. Behler, KC-46A FY2019 Annual Report, The Office of the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation, 20 December 2019.

4 Valerie Insinna, “What If Air Force Tankers Became a Communications Node?” C4ISRNET, 6 January 2020.

5 Valerie Insinna, “What If Air Force Tankers Became a Communications Node?”

6 Valerie Insinna, “What If Air Force Tankers Became a Communications Node?”

7 Brian W. Everstine, “Tankers Likely the First Aircraft to Receive ABMS Upgrades,” Air Force Magazine, 25 November 2020, https://www.airforcemag.com/.

8 Rachel S. Cohen, “’Global Lightning’ SATCOM Project Expanding to AC-130, KC-135,” Air Force Magazine, 5 November 2019, https://www.airforcemag.com/.

9 Advanced Battle Management Systems & Joint All-Domain Command & Control Product Line Book, Version 1.0, (USAF Pentagon, 2020).

10 Advanced Battle Management Systems & Joint All-Domain Command & Control Product Line Book.

11 Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Tankers, Transports Need Real-Time Threat Data To Survive: AMC,” Breaking Defense, 14 September 2020, https://breakingdefense.com/.

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