European KC-135s Get Real Time Cockpit System Upgrades

The Real-Time Information in the Cockpit system is shown on one of the 100th Air Refueling Wing’s KC-135 Stratotankers, at RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom, Oct. 18, 2023. The communications equipment provides the ability for aircrew to see tactical data-link information in the jet. (Image: U.S. Air Force)

Aircraft assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing are the first tankers in U.S. Air Forces in Europe to be equipped with a new data link system, allowing them to communicate and share information with other aircraft.

Some KC-135 Stratotankers have recently been fitted with the Real-Time Information in the Cockpit system – more commonly known as “RTIC” – giving them the ability to see tactical data link information in the jet.

“We’ve got extra equipment, including three screens and two radios, which can all be configured and moved to different locations around the aircraft, but their default positions are at the pilots’ and navigator seats,” said Capt. Jarod Suhr, 100th Operations Support Squadron Tactics Officer and KC-135R Pilot. “‘Link 16 is a picture of all of the machines and platforms including aircraft, ground systems and command post that are all talking to each other and sharing information. It builds situational awareness for the people operating those systems.”

He explained that Link 16 is the data link via which RTIC operates, and the RTIC system refers to the specific hardware on the KC-135.

“Think of it like RTIC is your laptop, and Link 16 is the internet,” Suhr remarked. “It’s mostly for sharing tactical information; for example, two fighters can share target information between them over a data link, but thanks to RTIC, we now also have the ability to see some of that tactical information that we don’t normally get or wouldn’t want to ask for over the radio – it’s complicated to ask for things via voice.”

The tactics officer described how RTIC is a situational awareness and tactical awareness tool for aircrew.

“It gives us the ability to communicate more effectively in the combat environment,” he said. “It’s the main way that most of our ‘Blue Force’ [US partners and allies] systems are already sharing information; we’re basically just speaking the same language as most of the other tactical platforms that are out there.

“The benefits this new system brings include increased awareness, a form of tactical survivability and a secure way of communicating – it’s very hard to listen in to. It’s information sharing, and allows us to communicate in less permissive environments,” said Suhr. “Twenty years ago, if we needed to share information between two aircraft, we had to do it over voice radio; I had to key the mic and talk to you, then you would talk back. Then someone decided, ‘Hey, we should be able to do this computer-to-computer’ and I could then see a text message pop up on my screen. That’s way more efficient and it doesn’t take that extra time for someone to hear the message and process it. It just evolved from there.”

Suhr explained that RTIC allows the KC-135 to bridge communications with other platforms on the data link.

“Everything in the Blue Force must be data-link enabled because it’s the only way that we’ll be able to communicate effectively with each other in the future, due to the vast amount of information that we have to share. The RTIC is bringing the KC-135 into the modern communication landscape,” he said.

The RTIC system will be invaluable to RAF Mildenhall’s KC-135 crew as it’s the first time they have had real situational awareness of what’s going on in the battlespace.

“What Link 16 gives our crews, on top of being able to communicate, is the ability to see all the other things that are in the link,” said Lt. Col. Tyler Berge, 100th Operations Group deputy commander. “It gives us threats, target data, locations of Blue Force partner nations that are playing, so you can see it all. Right now, when I go out and fly, I have very little understanding of who’s around me or what’s out there – now, with RTIC, I have that; I can see it all on the screen that’s in front of me.

“We can see where threats are, and it gives us the ability to avoid them and push further into the fight, while remaining safe at the appropriate level of risk,” he remarked. “It also gives us situational awareness on other airplanes; right now, if I have a receiver coming to us to get gas, I might have an idea of where they’re coming from if I talk to tactical [command and control] or an air traffic control facility. With this, I can see where they are coming from, along with their air speeds and altitudes so I can make decisions on my own to put the tanker in the right spot in the air space to make the move happen faster and have a better plan of what’s going on by having all that information at my fingertips.”

Berge explained that the RTIC system has the capability to display information relevant to the warfighter, including map overlays, data from ground stations with Link 16 access and details on a multitude of different weapons systems.

“This is huge in providing survivability for us,” Berge said. “It enables us to utilize the most amount of airspace, while keeping our crew safe. It allows us to instantly see on the map how close we can get; before, I would take a chart and have to physically draw that onto a piece of paper or laminated chart and fly with it to work out where we were. Now, we have a GPS signal that gives us our exact location and the location of any threat, so I know instantly both where I need to turn before I go into the weapons engagement zone, and also the exact location of the receivers I’m refueling, where to meet them, and if I need to change direction.”

“It makes us even more effective; it keeps us safer and allows us to more of the airspace than we’ve ever been able to use before,” Berge said. “Communication is key – we’re used to always having tactical C2, so somebody from the air operations center or an air battle manager would tell us who needs gas and where we then need to go, now anybody who is on Link [16] can get on there and say, ‘I need a tanker’ and we can get on there and say, ‘I have extra gas – come to me!’ We have the ability to communicate and figure out who needs gas and who doesn’t. Instead of waiting on a receiver to come get their gas, only to find out they went home an hour ago, we now have the option of offering that gas to someone else. These types of capabilities will be huge, in a contested environment.”