Connecting the nodes… Airborne Gateway
One high priority concept being pursued under Air Force’s ‘Plan Jericho’ is the use of electronic gateways to link platforms across the whole Defence Force, allowing data to flow freely around the battlespace. In modern warfare it’s no longer enough to have the best platforms available or the most highly trained, skilled operators, an aspiring 5th Generation force must enable each platform to communicate across the spectrum, to provide decision making superiority. This is the ‘knowledge edge’ modern military forces seek. One problem facing the ADF, however, is that impressive warfighting platforms do not presently have the capability to share data with other elements of the Joint Force.
The Australian Army’s Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter (ARH) is an example of this limitation. While it has modern and extremely effective sensors and weapons, its limited datalink capability constrains the platform’s ability to share digital information with the coalition force.
Tiger uses the bespoke Eurogrid tactical data link network and until recently it could only share data with its own ground station. Even today, the only other network it is able to directly communicate with is Army’s Battlefield Management System via an interim Tactical Data Link.
The iTDL is in essence an Enhanced Position Location Reporting System (EPLRS) radio fitted to the Tiger’s cockpit, accessed via an iPad strapped to a crew member’s leg. Importantly, Tiger cannot directly share data with platforms it may go to war with in the future, such as Air Force’s E-7A ‘Wedgetail’ Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, the EA-18G Growler, and the F-35A Lightning II platforms along with Navy warships.
This is not a fault with the Tiger ARH. When the ARH project was defined in the mid 1990s, the Army was operating Kiowas on the battlefield equipped with a voice radio and binoculars for the crew. Data Links for helicopters were not even considered practical, let alone necessary for future land operations at that time, and the ‘stovepipe’ procurement strategies of the time did not help either.
Today, the need for seamless data transfer across the battlespace is known to be tactically essential, and future procurement programmes will no doubt take these requirements into consideration. The problem therefore is what to do with legacy platforms in the meantime.
One potential solution is to use an airborne gateway system that can take data in one form and ‘translate’ it into one or more other formats, then rebroadcast it across the battlespace. Indeed, one such product is an Airborne Gateway system successfully trialled by the RAAF during the Jericho Dawn 16-3 demonstration last year. The concept will be further explored by the RAAF over the next two years.