MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C. -- Innovative technology such as tactical data links are changing the way battles are won and strategies are implemented on the battlefield.
Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 467, Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2, and U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, participated in an exercise testing data movement between different tactical networks.
“This exercise focused on integrating field radios and commercial ‘off the shelf’ tablet systems to rapidly and securely pass converted LINK 16 messages to HMLA aircraft in a tactical training exercise,” said Capt. Justin Pavlischek, the intelligence officer with VMU-2.
Access to LINK 16 data allows interoperability between pilots of certain aircraft, joint terminal attack controller, maneuver units and VMU aircrew, provided the assets and the conversion protocols are present and can be utilized.
“A lot of our systems have requirements and are difficult to modify,” said Capt. Michael Marron Jr., an AH-1W Super Cobra pilot with HMLA-467. “We overcome that by leveraging a specific combination of current technology to provide access to two tactical networks and move some specific messages between those networks – in this case LINK 16 and ANW2.”
According to Marron, digital interoperability is the way the Marine Corps will be able to communicate between multiple type/model/series aircraft in an objective area that is comprised of enemy threats, friendly air positions and ground forces.
“For the rotary-wing aircraft, up until recently, the Marine Corps has been using paper maps and objective area diagrams to plot friendly and enemy locations using a pen or pencil,” said Marron. “Now with tablets, we have modern technology in an aircraft that is 30 years old. It allows us to tap into a tactical picture that was previously out of our reach.”
Assets that are LINK 16 capable can send information to unmanned aerial systems ground control stations, which acts as a network gateway to then push out specific information in a readable format to non-LINK 16 enabled aircraft. Those aircraft can then see that information, provided they are carrying a specific radio and tablet running an application called “KILSWITCH” (Kinetic Integration Lightweight Software Individual Tactical Combat Handheld).
Systems that monitor the aircraft’s status can also be tapped into and that information can be transmitted off the aircraft. “In the future, it will tell how much fuel an aircraft has and how many weapons it possesses,” said Capt. Christopher Cain, a pilot training officer with HMLA-467.
Additionally, there are efforts underway to integrate technologies that will have the ability to populate threats. “If one aircraft can see a threat, it can notify everyone connected, show how far away and how to stay away to mitigate it … It will speed-up the kill chain.”
Among the military aviation community, the jargon “speed-up the kill chain” refers to utilizing the most efficient method toward negotiating a nine-line expeditiously. A nine-line is the method of establishing the scene of an objective area and incorporating necessary information to achieve mission success.
“Passing of that nine-line over the radio is going to take a minute or two, at the very least,” said Cain. “The building of a nine-line using KILSWITCH can take as little as 30 seconds. There is less of an opportunity to copy down a wrong grid or mix up information.”
With this upgraded technology, someone building an attack brief in a KILSWITCH tablet can send it electronically, and quickly ask for read-backs – ultimately the close-air support players will be more effective and able to get more attacks in during their time on station, said Cain.
“The longer it takes to figure out where the enemy is and where the friendlies are, the longer it will take to put down effective fire on the enemy” added Marron. “If I have situational awareness before I show up into an objective area, then I don’t have to spend precious time figuring out what’s going on.”
By design, unmanned aircraft are capable of providing persistent coverage and can be fitted with "plug-and-play" radios and payloads, which will extend the ranges and capability of digital networks into disparate battlefields and areas of operation, explained Pavlischek.
When fitted with these payloads and radios, the MQ-21A Blackjack will be ideally suited to provide airborne data network relay and gateways for aviation and ground units.
In addition to the VMU's traditional role of providing aerial reconnaissance, the VMU's mission has recently been expanded to include "supporting arms coordination and control." The foresight developed into this exercise demonstrated a potential role the VMUs could fill in the future – enhancing the lethal and non-lethal capabilities of the Aviation Combat Element and Marine Air-Ground Task Force through digital interoperability.
According to the 2015 Marine Aviation Plan, digital interoperability will be tested and validated with an "integration through innovation and experimentation" approach. This exercise between VMU-2 and HMLA-467 is one example of this innovation and experimentation within the fleet, explained Pavlischek. It demonstrates how technology present in the Marine unmanned aviation ground control station can provide a critical link, or node, in extending and enhancing the situational awareness, survivability, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability for ground units and aircraft distributed across the battlefield.