Even after years of war, America’s armed services field incompatible aviation technology that hinders battlefield communication between the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps combat aircraft.
Even after over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, America’s armed services field incompatible aviation technology that hinders battlefield communication between U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps combat aircraft. The Pentagon is making an effort to fix the problem, but whether it will succeed is an open question.
The problem is the Link-16 datalink that is supposed to be standard across the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, while standardization is the aspiration, real-world execution falls short.
“Link-16 grew up as a kludge of different user inputs, which is how we ended up with a bunch of incompatible message sets,” said one senior Air Force official. “Fixing it would drive big OFP [operational flight program] bills to all the user platforms to change their implementations, so it’ll probably stay the way it is for quite a while.”
One example of where integration between the Navy and the Air Force falls short is in suppressing or destroying enemy air defenses. That mission will only grow more important as the United States tries to extract itself from the wars in the Middle East and refocus on the Pacific theater, where countries such as Russia and China possess extremely formidable air defenses.
Right now, Navy and Air Force pilots work around the limitations of the Link-16 datalink by developing tactics to overcome those issues. “The guys have great tactics set up for overcoming that. And tactics are cheaper than technology,” the second official said. “I would like my EA-18Gs and F-16s to perfectly communicate with each other. They would be better for it.”
Other Air Force and Marine Corps pilots agreed that the Link-16 has compatibility problems, but they can work around the problem, even if the situation is not ideal. “[It’s] mostly a training issue…which doesn’t make it okay,” said one senior Marine Corps aviator. “Bottom line is yeah, we don’t do the best job between services. Standard really.”
But why does the Link-16, which was designed to be a standard NATO datalink, have so many communications problems? While the basic hardware and software are more or less compatible, it is the messages that different services transmit across the datalink that are incompatible.
Link-16 requires three things to work—a reference time, crypto keys and a network data load (NDL). “The first two are pretty standard/binary,” said a third senior Air Force office. “It either works or does not.”
There is no easy solution to the problem, according to multiple Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps official. Fixing Link-16 so that it is compatible across the three service’s aircraft would be expensive. “That would be expensive in its own right, and require an awful lot of proprietary barriers to be wished away,” the second Air Force official said.
Full article: The Fog of War Just Got Thicker: U.S. Warplanes Have Trouble Communicating with Each Other (The National Interest)