Tanker Intelligent Gateway Tested During Joint Exercise with Australia, UK and US Air Force

A KC-135R Stratotanker, assigned to the Utah Air National Guard 151st Air Refueling Wing, launches at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 9, 2023, during Northern Edge 2023. The Wing is partnered with the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center to conduct testing on their aircraft, equipped with Tanker Intelligent Gateway technology, and demonstrate aspects of the Advanced Battle Management System capabilities in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. (Image: U.S. Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Amber Monio)

During Joint Exercise Northern Edge 2023, participants from Australia, the United Kingdom, and the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Test Center (AATC) tested advanced tactical datalink and gateway technologies on a Utah ANG KC-135, equipped with the Tanker Intelligent Gateway (TIG). Testing was done with the goal of enhancing battlefield communication and situational awareness, enabling seamless data exchange, allowing battle-field commanders to make real-time decisions.

Air-refueling aircraft or tankers are a critical element in the United States Air Forces ability to rapidly respond around the world. The KC-135, a 65-year-old aircraft that is mostly flown by the Air National Guard, is a key node in combat operations for “passing gas”, and now for passing data. AATC is leading the way for combat modernization on the KC-135, starting with the Real-Time Information in the Cockpit (RTIC) program in 2021.

The testing of the TIG to serve as a vital link between legacy and advanced line-of-sight and beyond line-of-sight tactical data link systems facilitating communication and data exchange in military operations across Joint and Coalition Forces. “TIG provides a pathway for a common operating picture on the battlefield and in air operation centers around the world” stated Maj Mike Starley, the KC-135 Test Director. Major Starley continued “Having a common operating picture is a key factor in understanding the surrounding environment and potential threats during operations by ensuring everyone involved in a mission has the latest, most accurate information, making operations more efficient and effective.”

Using a building block approach from lessons learned during Valiant Shield 2022, the TIG integrated and tested new enabling components. New components to the TIG including the AFRL Global Lightening Program bringing high-speed commercial satellite communication and a cross-domain solution allowing partner nations from Australia and the United Kingdom to share and receive data from USAF, USMC and USN aircraft and ground stations.

In addition to datalink and gateway testing, Air Battle Managers joined the KC-135 test crew and were able to provide distributed Tactical Command and Control in a simulated combat environment, successfully sharing data across tactical datalinks and then distributing information to disadvantaged aircraft that would not have tactical awareness otherwise. Lt Col Curtis Andersen of the 513 OSS led the team testing the Platform Agnostic Command and Control (PACC) concept. “We see the TIG as a great path to provide additional distributed Command and Control when and where the KC-135 located, which typically is near the fight and fighter aircraft who need the fuel.”

Dubbed TIGER-PACC - for Tanker Intelligent Gateway Enhanced RTIC – Platform Agnostic Command and Control - by the team, they were able to successfully demonstrate for Alaska Command the ability to provide near-real time command and control above 70 degrees North. “This is a tricky problem to solve as we routinely operate outside the normal line of sight when supporting intercepts of Russian Bear bombers” stated Maj Starley. The TIG was successful in bi-directional command and control in the Artic Ocean with AATC F-16s equipped with SADL and LINK 16 capabilities only. The TIG demonstrated the ability to rapidly communicate in a vast AOR and communicated with multiple mission control centers located at Beale AFB and Joint Base Pearl-Hickam, conducting dynamic targeting data, and effectively shortening the kill chain.

“Northern Edge 23 was an overall success. We had the opportunity to demonstrate tasks which have never been accomplished from a KC-135 before.” said Major Starley, “We know the KC-135 will be a vital asset for the USAF for decades to come and will play a critical role in every upcoming fight. The TIG represents one of many steps AATC and the Utah Air National Guard are taking to ensure the KC-135 will not only provide required fuel but will also provide the crucial communications/datalink node our forces need to be successful.”

According to Major Starley the intelligent gateway is a versatile system that can either be permanently installed or used as a Roll-On Roll-Off system on any Mobility Air Force aircraft. This adaptability ensures the TIGs integration is as convenient and efficient as possible, irrespective of the specific aircraft in use. Additionally, the TIG will provide Air Battle Managers with Tactical Command and Control capabilities by connecting line-of-sight systems with beyond-line-of-sight systems via a high-speed connection.

The TIG is being developed through a Collaborative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) between AATC, the Utah Air National Guard, and Collins Aerospace. A CRADA represents a collaboration between government entities and private organizations, with the primary goal of jointly developing and sharing resources, knowledge, and technological advancements to achieve mutual benefits. This arrangement fosters the transfer of expertise, intellectual property, and financial resources, driving innovation and accelerating the development of new products and services.

Testing provided valuable data points on strengths and identified weaknesses that will be further tested in the near future. Ultimately, success will be determined by the TIG’s ability to connect disparate networks, bridge Tactical Command and Control gaps, and connect the combatant commanders to their warfighters.