USAF Moving to Field KC-46A Communications “Backbone”
DAYTON, Ohio – The U.S. Air Force intends to field a communications “backbone” for the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus in the next year in Capability Release 1 (CR1) of the service’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) effort.
The Air Force has said that the KC-46A will serve as an ABMS data link for combat forces, especially in large theaters, such as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
“I’ve narrowed the scope of that CR1 initial capability to just getting the organic communications capability integrated on the KC-46 so that they can start getting the connectivity that they need,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Luke Cropsey, the program executive officer for command, control, communications, and battle management, told reporters last week during the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s annual industry days conference.
“Because the timing is so critical in getting that capability in place and out to them, we’ve narrowed the scope down to getting that initial palletized [compute and data storage] capability into the back of that KC-46 and giving them the opportunity to start experimenting with a couple of different ways CONOPS-wise, maybe start using that as a basis for that capability—the work we’re doing on that digital infrastructure stack.”
The latter “is the next piece to that and making sure that we’ve got the capability of getting that fused [data] store and comms package put together in a tight, compact way that allows us to get it out into the various edge locations that PACAF, USAFE, INDOPACOM, EUCOM, are telling us they need that capability, where they want it to go first so we can start deploying it, really in the next year, starting to build out that connectivity and that backbone,” Cropsey said.
The Air Force disclosed its ABMS plans for the KC-46A more than two years ago and said that the service’s goal was to field ABMS on the first of 179 planned KC-46As by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2022 (Defense Daily, June 9, 2021).
Boeing said in April that the Air Force had picked the company to aid the service’s ABMS Airborne Edge Node (AEN) concept by studying how to integrate new forward edge processing on the KC-46A.
The Air Force requested more than $500 million for ABMS in fiscal 2024. While three of the four defense mark-ups recommended the full amount, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense panel has advised a reduction of $16 million, including $10 million less for AEN as “early to need.”
The Air Force had planned for AEN to be in CR1.
The networking of platforms through AEN is to improve data security and reduce time lags for processing information and sending it to front-line forces.
In March 2021, the Air Force identified a critical deficiency in the flight management system of the aerial refueler of the KC-46A Pegasus tanker. Boeing shared in 2022 that it expected to resolve the flight management issues via the development of a software fix.