GEELONG, Australia—The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) looks likely to go ahead this year with fielding an interim system for datalink translation and relay that should be a big step toward a goal of high information integration across Australia’s armed services.                                                                       

Supplier Northrop Grumman is expecting a decision within weeks on the project, with deployment of the system possible this year.

This effort follows a landmark exercise in 2016 when Northrop Grumman demonstrated the system, called Airborne Gateway. It allowed Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Australian Army personnel and systems to share such data as positions and to communicate by secure text and voice, despite using incompatible data links.

The system is functionally similar to Northrop Grumman’s Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, which is used by the U.S. Air Force, mounted in Bombardier E-11 and Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk aircraft.

While Northrop Grumman does not comment on the likelihood of Australia going ahead with the interim system, a decision not to do so would be surprising. Under an effort called Plan Jericho, Australia’s armed forces are working hard at maximizing data integration. A key problem in doing so is the variety of incompatible data links in service. Even within the army, the data transmission format of the Battle Management System (BMS) is incompatible with the Eurogrid format of Airbus Tiger helicopters.

As used in the 2016 exercise, Jericho Dawn, Airborne Gateway was mounted in a Gulfstream II business aircraft. For the interim operational system, a smaller aircraft is likely, says Stu Blackwell, manager of communications programs for Northrop Grumman in Australia. The number of systems and aircraft is unknown.

The defense force intends to use the interim system only within Australia in what will be, in effect, an operational demonstration over about two years. That should be followed by a decision on whether and how to deploy a full-scale system.

In Exercise Jericho Dawn, Airborne Gateway acted as a node for Link 16, commonly used in RAAF aircraft, Eurogrid in Airbus Tiger attack helicopters and the army’s ground-based Advanced Field Artillery Tactical Data System.

For the interim system, the air force wants to add the army’s BMS and Variable Message Format, the navy’s Hawklink, and the civilian 3G and 4G cellphone formats. The latter are particularly useful for disaster relief, Blackwell says.

The heart of the system is a module—a black box—called the RNC 2000. Mounting in an aircraft improves its range, but Northrop Grumman Australia Program Manager Dave Doyle points out that the system can be put in a ground vehicle or even placed on a hill.
Long endurance for the carrying aircraft is an advantage.