The Utah Air National Guard takes an important next Step in ABMS Modernization Efforts

  • Published
  • By Maj. Ryan Sutherland
  • 151st Air Refueling Wing

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah -- The Utah Air National Guard’s 151st Air Refueling Wing, working with the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Test Center (AATC) – KC-135 Test Detachment based in Salt Lake City, Utah, took a step in making the U.S. Air Force ABMS Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) a reality on the 60-year-old KC-135.

A UTANG KC-135, modified with Real-Time Information in the Cockpit and gateway technologies, departed Salt Lake City in early June with the goal of demonstrating aspects of ABMS capabilities in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command during Exercise Valiant Shield 2022.

In collaboration with Collins Aerospace, the team was able to successfully demonstrate connectivity between different tactical datalinks with the ability to share datalink and sensor data across LINK 16, and TTNT (Tactical Targeting Networking Technology), and then shared across the MOUS (Mobile User Objective System) constellation back to Beale Air Force Base.

In 2021, the 151st ARW working with Collins Aerospace, successfully demonstrated advanced communication, mission computing and sensor technologies to support JADC2 (Joint All Domain Command and Control) and ABMS initiatives on a KC-135 Stratotanker during the Utah Air National Guard’s 75th Anniversary. The ground demo successfully demonstrated how a time-based datalink and an IP-based datalink can share message sets using a Collins Aerospace gateway.

“This is a small part in making ABMS a reality, but a very important step,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Gould, the KC-135 test director for AATC. “When we started testing RTIC in 2021, the aircrew all commented they would like to see gateway with more robust line of sight and beyond line-of-sight communications.”

LINK 16 and UHF SATCOM (Ultra High Frequency Satellite Communications) provided greater situational awareness that the 60-year-old aircraft had ever used; however, the distance and speed of data required in the INDOPACOM region will be much greater than current legacy systems can provide.

In 2021 the Utah Air National Guard partnered with Collins Aerospace under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement. After the successful demo during the 75th Anniversary of the Utah Air National Guard sharing the different datalink messages, the next logical step was to take it airborne to a major exercise.

Col. Doug Foster, commander of the 151st Operations Group, worked with AATC - KC-135 Test Detachment to get the demo airborne.

“It was an impressive collaboration with the 151st Maintenance Group, the 151st Operations Group, AATC and the KC-135 System Program Office to allow us to demo a capability that supports the Joint Force and shows a path forward in closing Secretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff of the Air Force capability gaps,” said Foster.

During Exercise Valiant Shield, the Utah Air National Guard, in conjunction with Collins Aerospace, shared J-series messages across TTNT and MUOS, IP-based message sets, both line-of-sight and beyond line-of-sight and vice versa. Sharing disparate data message sets in real-time allowed the aircrew to see the entire INDOPACOM region laydown from a laptop in the KC-135. Nearly 2,700 tracks from U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy datalink users fused with data shared by Common Mission Control Center at Beale AFB gave the crew insight into the massive battlespace they may need to fly in the future.

In addition to enhanced situational awareness, the Utah Air National Guard’s aircraft, the most advanced KC-135 in the Air Force inventory, served as a translation and relay gateway for all users connected.

“We were able to connect U.S. Air Force Link users and U.S. Navy TTNT users and share the data they normally would have not received, said Foster. “This is our second iteration of bringing a real, live, non-PowerPoint level, solution to both senior leaders and warfighters.”

Plans for the gateway program will add more complexity, more users and more datalink streams.
The 151st ARW and AATC – KC-135 Test Detachment expect to improve the gateway technology with the end goal of removing the need for an additional member on the aircraft managing the system. Additionally, the goal is to add more types of datalinks both line of sight and beyond line-of-sight.

“If the tanker is already in the fight, they are close enough to enhance the Joint Force and Coalition Partners ability to connect; they are close enough to process data at the forward edge (compute); they are close enough (with sensors) to provide additional full-spectrum awareness; and it is necessary they have the ability to defend themselves and potentially others,” said Col. Foster.

The ‘Connect, Compute, Sense and Defend,’ model is the center of situational awareness and survivability modernization efforts to change the dynamic of air refueling operations.

“Tankers are an integral platform to Department of Defense missions, especially in the Pacific; they are always there and ever present, it makes sense to utilize the tankers as more than just a gas station,” said Brig. Gen. Boyack. Utah Air National Guard commander. “Lt. Col. Gould, the 151st Air Refueling Wing, and our industry partners are getting us one step closer to becoming a connected tanker.”

RTIC is the KC-135 Tactical Datalink program of record tested by AATC in 2021. The federated, government owned software and hardware currently provides LINK 16, SADL and beyond line-of-sight connectivity using UHF SATCOM. The UTANG has been leading situational awareness and survivability modernization of the KC-135 with AATC since 2018.

“This is not the end of the experiment, rather just the beginning,” said Gould. “Our overall goal is to get to the point where we are able to ‘Connect, Compute, Sense and Defend’ not just on the KC-135, but allow this technology to transfer to other Mobility Air Force aircraft, enhancing the mission success of Air, Ground, and Naval assets.”