The Air Force is talking about a new mission set for tanker and cargo aircraft—make the tankers flying communication nodes. The new mission set concept, known as the Data Tanker, uses existing aircraft, operating refueling missions, to not only share fuel but also collect and transmit data over high capacity data links and, via high speed processors, share information with warfighters at the tactical edge.

The data tanker effort is part of a broader U.S. DoD initiative to connect and integrate shooters, sensors and platforms across all domains and branches of the military to advance the speed of information sharing and decision making – also known as Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2).

Northrop Grumman’s Gateway Systems Provide Data Tanker Capabilities Today

Northrop Grumman’s gateway systems have an extensive track record of helping interconnect branches of the military via airborne and tanker platforms. Through multiple DoD programs, Northrop Grumman’s gateway offerings provide a “Wi-Fi in the sky” capability for a range of missions relying on advanced data translation and communications capabilities. The company’s gateway offerings are also well positioned to provide access to layers of information in JADC2 environments.

The KC-135 for example, a current DoD tanker platform, carries Northrop Grumman’s current gateway systems to provide advanced, open and secure datalink capabilities to warfighters who otherwise would not be able to access communications or translate mission data across branches of the military.

Earlier this year, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) conducted an Arctic air defense exercise that featured Northrop Grumman’s gateway capabilities on both KC-135 and KC-46 aircraft. Northrop Grumman’s gateway solutions provided a communication system designed to deliver range extension to warfighters for links like Multifunctional Information Distribution System, Situation Awareness Data Link and other beyond-line-of-sight communications. This produces a single integrated situational awareness picture of the position of friendly assets and potential threats. The successful exercise demonstrated Northrop Grumman’s ability to easily integrate its gateway offerings and deliver advanced data link capabilities to support multiple DoD tanker platforms.

Northrop Grumman Helps to Enable Decision Superiority
Northrop Grumman’s gateway systems provided communications and advanced networking capabilities on tanker platforms during a recent NORAD demonstration. Tankers are critical to the homeland defense mission by keeping platforms like the F-16 Viper and E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (pictured) fueled and flying.

As the DoD looks to evolve data tanker capabilities, Northrop Grumman’s leading gateway innovation is uniquely positioned to support this effort. The company is currently developing rapidly deployable, and affordable, low size, weight and power gateway systems which are designed to enable communications, and cross-domain translations, between multiple beyond line-of-sight and line-of-sight voice and data networks—including 5th to 4th generation capabilities. These systems include multi-level security and advanced functions such as cloud computing, machine learning, artificial intelligence, next generation datalinks and the use of third-party software and sensor solutions.

One of Northrop Grumman’s enhanced gateway systems that is well suited to support the data tanker effort will provide the insight needed to understand the health of the network and automatically self-form and self-heal in both contested and non-contested environments. A key capability to this enhanced gateway system is our secure processing capabilities.

Secure Processing

Currently, sensor information from a variety of platforms is sent from a disadvantaged user (low connectivity location) back to a processor that could be hundreds of miles away. This creates time delays and security concerns.

The Data Tanker can reduce vulnerabilities and delays by securely processing the data directly at the tactical edge, advancing the speed of decision making and overcoming the lack of bandwidth and connectivity our warfighters currently experience. Northrop Grumman solutions include cyber survivability, built into the coding of the datalinks, software and hardware, designed to keep the system secure and protected from attacks.

Northrop Grumman is also partnering with leading advanced processing industry companies to develop additional future Data Tanker and gateway system efforts to further enable the JADC2 vision across all domains.

Advanced and secure networking will allow for faster and more resilient information flow between data tankers and other warfighting platforms. This flow will direct the right data to the right operator, at the right time, providing information overmatch and decision superiority. 

Data Tankers will be a key component to support decision dominance and information overmatch. With Northrop Grumman’s proven leadership in advanced networking, open and intelligent gateway systems, along with innovative secure processing capabilities, the company is ready to support the DoD as it looks to integrate platforms that will support the future fight.