In First, Air Force Will Send Secure Data Between an F-22 and F-35

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F-22 Raptors and F-35A Lightning IIs fly in formation.
F-22 Raptors from the 94th Fighter Squadron, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, and F-35A Lightning IIs from the 58th Fighter Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, fly in formation. (U.S. Air Force/Shane A. Cuomo)

The U.S. Air Force will soon test out a gateway that could finally allow the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and F-22 Raptor to share data during missions without compromising the fighters' stealth, a service official said Thursday.

It would be the first time the Air Force will test how the two highly capable fifth-generation fighters can exchange battlespace information after years of incompatibility, said Preston Dunlap, the Air Force's chief architect serving the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

"From zero to 60 in four months, [the goal] is to design and integrate the gateway so we can have something to triangulate" the information, Dunlap said during the DefenseOne Outlook event in Washington, D.C. The testing is set to begin in December, he said.

Dunlap said the two aircraft were built with different communications standards in mind.

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Because the F-22 was built with a datalink -- Intra-Flight Data Link, or IFDL -- system that is incompatible with the F-35's Multi-Function Advanced Datalink system, or MADL, it can receive data from the F-35 and fourth-generation fighters through its legacy Link 16 system, but cannot share data back. Link 16 is the standard U.S. and NATO operating system.

"That's both the physics, like frequency, and software, like a radio and what's behind that actual antenna," Dunlap said. "So for the first time, we want to be able to share data as we would like to in a relevant time and environment -- and we want to operate in a highly contested environment -- and ensure it gets [securely] from one place to the other."

The technology is "something that can translate from that way not only one platform talks, [like] the language, but also has to cross over the frequencies," he added.

In 2013, Lockheed Martin demonstrated linking the F-22 and F-35 via a Link 16 capability in what the company called "Project Missouri." But the process never became standard-use.

In line with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein's vision for the service, the effort also supports the Defense Department's goal to connect and share between platforms and streamline and centralize the information.

"We want to move quick, and we want to show it can be done, and we want to push ourselves to continue to enhance capability," Dunlap said, adding officials will share progress reports with the Army and Navy.

Speaking to reporters after his panel speech, the chief architect said the experiment will bring in a range of Air Force units, with operations taking place in widely separated geographic locations.

Earlier this year, the F-35 connected and shared information between a U-2 Dragon Lady reconnaissance aircraft and a ground control facility operated by the Missile Defense Agency, according to Lockheed Martin Corp., which ran the test.

"During the demonstration, called 'Project Riot,' an F-35 detected a long-range missile launch with its onboard sensors and shared the information through the U-2 to the air defense commander on the ground, enabling the commander to quickly make the decision to target the threat," Lockheed officials said in a September news release.

"This next-level connectivity reduces the data-to-decision timeline from minutes to seconds, which is critical in fighting today's adversaries and advanced threats," it stated.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect an earlier test conducted by Lockheed Martin.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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