USAF Wants Beyond-Line-of-Sight Data For Its Mobility Fleet

Credit: Air National Guard

The U.S. Air Force wants its heavy airlifters and refueling tankers to be more connected and is reaching out to industry to see what beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) data services are available to make that happen quickly.

The service on Oct. 1 issued a request for information (RFI) to industry for a “Beyond Line of Sight as a Service” capability, with the direction to provide resilient communications for its C-5s, C-17s, C-130s, KC-135s, and KC-46s by 2025. Companies have until Nov. 5 to provide white papers outlining the internet protocol communication capabilities they can provide, including which satellites it uses and what hardware is needed, among other specifics.

The effort is part of the military’s overall Joint All Domain Command and Control push, in which “the need for full-spectrum, seamless, and resilient communications and adaptable data pathways out to the tactical edge is critical,” the RFI states. 

Air Mobility Command (AMC) wants its BLOS plan to be able to switch from primary, alternate, contingency and emergency communications. For example, a C-17 flying a normal supply mission would use a communications profile with the minimum required bandwidth to maintain situational awareness. But if that C-17 needs to switch to an aeromedical evacuation or a palletized munition mission and more bandwidth is needed, the BLOS should be able to handle that change quickly.

The command’s concept is a common system that can go on all of its aircraft and handle these multiple data pathways for IP communications at multiple security levels, according to the RFI.

The increased use of data links has been a priority for AMC in recent years as the Air Force presses for its airlift and refueling fleet to be more connected to a fight. But it has been limited by how few systems it has. 

For example, the KC-135 fleet has long been able to use the Roll-On Beyond-line-of-sight Enhancement (ROBE) terminal, which connects the Stratotanker with satellite communications and data links. But there are only a small number of these systems in the Air Force and they are owned by Air Combat Command, not the tanker community itself. The systems are largely kept in deployed locations and aircrews have limited opportunities to practice with them. KC-135s also just started receiving line-of-sight Link 16 capability as part of the Real-time Information in the Cockpit (RTIC) upgrade beginning in 2020.

Earlier this year, the Air Force also installed a SpaceX Starlink antenna on a KC-135 to evaluate the effectiveness of that IP-based connection. 

Lockheed Martin C-130Js are also getting Link 16 as part of the Block 8.1 modification. The Boeing KC-46 is unique among the mobility fleet, with its Tactical Data Link system built-in from the factory. 

The Air Force has been experimenting with additional line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight capabilities on its aircraft in limited ways. For example, during the command’s Mobility Guardian 2021 exercise in May, a KC-10 outfitted with a Situational Awareness Data Link system passed data to an A-10, while a ViaSAT satellite communications system allowed C-17 crews to access SIPRNet to connect to an air operations center. 

During the same exercise, a C-5 crew used a field radio and ultrahigh-frequency antenna on their aircraft to collect data from an integrated waveform satellite, which provided an aeromedical evacuation tasking. 

These were all steps that Air Force officials said were exciting demonstrations of how mobility aircraft can become more connected, but they are disparate efforts using a small number of systems and not a mobility-wide effort. AMC has said it is even looking at integrating some of the capabilities, such as Link 16 for KC-135s, into simulators so aircrews can have some experience using it even if it is not actually on their airframes.

Last month at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, mobility aircrews used laptops and radios on hand to practice some of these connections as a way to familiarize themselves with the capability.

“It’s not going to be the perfect solution. It’s not going to be the one that we want in the end. But it’s going to get us the repetition and the practice so that the crews get used to using the technology,” said Maj. Gen. Laura Lenderman, AMC’s director of operations, in an interview. The command wants “low-cost ways to get the reps and sets, and then really do experimentation to find what are those capabilities and technologies that we want to invest our limited dollars in.”

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.