Network for the Sky (NFTS) is a secure mobile communications system intended to link together the various military assets that might be used in an active wartime situation, operated from an overhead airborne command platform. For the tests, Airbus used a multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) aircraft, a military version of the civilian A310 airliner.
The system combines satellite and ground communications, air-to-ground, ground-to-air and air-to-air tactical links, 5G mobile communications and line-of-sight laser connections into what Airbus describes as a “resilient, unified, secure, highly interoperable mesh network”.
In operations, this would replace or at least reinforce limited bandwidth and interoperability networks currently used by aircraft, UAVs and helicopters, allowing them to operate as an integral part of a high-speed network.
The demonstration scenario in which the MRTT took part simulated the establishment of wideband communication links between a ground operative, a fighter jet, the airborne platform and a combined air operations centre (CAOC) on the ground. Both the ground operative and the fighter jet had to send video in real-time to provide situational awareness to, and receive instructions from, the CAOC.
The ground operative was located in Getafe, Spain, and equipped with the standard handheld radio used by NATO forces. The jetfighter obtained imagery of interest in the area while also acting as a communication node between the ground operative and the MRTT, which was flying at 30,000 feet within a 150km radius in secure airspace. The fighter relayed information to the MRTT via a wideband line-of-sight datalink. The MRTT used a satellite link to send its data to a link location near Washington DC, which returns communications to the CAOC in Europe via a terrestrial link.
This seemingly complex data path demonstrates the real-time operation of secure end-to-end communications, known as a hybrid network, which according to Airbus represents the future of military communications and meets the needs of Armed Forces to be able to use a wide range of networks while allowing these to be managed dynamically and transparently. Such a system allows secure Internet protocol communications to be established, links in real-time and the available bandwidth to be allocated datalink space on the operational priorities.
Technology involved in the demonstration included Airbus’s new tri-band satellite antenna, Janus, along with the latest version of the Proteus satellite modem, which is resilient against interference and jamming, and Airbus' aircraft links integration management system (ALIMS).
The exercise paves the way for the development of the capability for smart connectivity that will allow MRTT to act as a high-end communication node. Airbus expects the connected airborne battlespace to offer full operational capability by 2020.
“This unique demonstration is a significant milestone in realising our vision of secure connectivity, which will enable the future air combat cloud and enhance real time execution of military missions,” said Evert Dudok, head of Communications, Intelligence & Security at Airbus Defence and Space.