Battlefield communications will be getting a boost in the near future. The US Air Force has just completed testing on a new plane-mounted wireless router system that will allow troops to collaborate with other ground forces as well as jets overhead.
The new Network Tactical (Net-T) feature is a software-based upgrade to the Northrop Grumman LITENING and Lockheed Sniper advanced targeting pods currently installed on the F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, A-10 Thunderbolt II, B-52 Stratofortress, AV-8B+ Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet, and EA-6B Prowler. These targeting pods are packed with stand-off range FLIR sensors, imagers, CCD television cameras, and electro-optical point and inertial trackers, that allow the weapons system to automatically spot, track, and designate targets as well as be used for non-traditional intelligence gathering missions.
The Sniper, for example, "allows aircrews to detect and identify tactical-size targets outside threat rings for the destruction of enemy air defense mission, as well as outside jet noise ranges for urban counter-insurgency operations," according to Lockheed. And with the Net-T upgrade, they'll act as data relay stations as well. "This is a new capability the Air Force does not currently deploy with and it has not been tested until now," said Capt. Joseph Rojas, the Net-T Project Test Engineer.
When ground troops need close air support the duty of calling in the strike and preventing friendly fire falls to the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC). These servicemen, formerly known as Forward Air Controllers), basically act as tactical ground controllers on the front lines. Think Pushing Tin but in the middle of Mogadishu. JTACs coordinate with inbound strike teams usings ruggedized tablets, about he size of an iPad mini, known as the Remote Operations Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) 5 which allows them to tap into what the targeting pod above sees.
The limitation with this however is that JTACs could only talk to the the pilots, not to each other which makes calling in close strikes on a crowded battlefield a dangerous proposition indeed. But with the Net-T, teams will be able to communicate and coordinate amongst themselves, using the targeting pods as airborne routers. The only limitation now is that ground troops need to maintain line of sight with the aircraft, though not each other.
The system still requires some further testing before being deployed but Air Force officials hope to have it off the ground by 2014.