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Col. Joe Lenertz, chief of the Tactical Data Links Enterprise Division at the Air Force Command and Control Integration Center, Langley AFB, Va., discusses the Joint Aerial Layer Network with Hanscom Representatives Association members at the Minuteman Club March 8. (U.S. Air Force photo by Rick Berry)
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Colonel discusses airborne networking progress, lingering challenges

Posted 3/10/2011   Updated 3/10/2011 Email story   Print story


by Chuck Paone
66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

3/10/2011 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- Airborne networking coverage in theater is significantly better now than it was just a few years ago, a top Air Force requirements official told members of the Hanscom Representatives Association March 8 at the Hanscom Minuteman Club.

"It's really pretty impressive," said Col. Joe Lenertz, chief of the Tactical Data Links Enterprise Division at the Air Force Command and Control Integration Center, Langley AFB, Va. He noted that the amount of time it takes to provide close air support to ground troops in contact has been reduced by 25 percent.

The aerial network is composed of myriad sub-networks and data links that are not inherently interoperable. This results in the need for various relays and gateways to make sure operators can exchange information. Recent advances in this area, such as the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, are largely responsible for the improvements the colonel discussed.

However, joint airborne network complexities run beyond differing data links and waveforms. Among them is the need to balance and integrate different tiers.

"There's a low tier that's really about integrating with ground forces," the colonel said. "There's a mid-tier layer that's the tactical air center, and there's a high tier that connects the aerial and the space layers."

Requirements experts also have to prepare for three levels of warfare, he said: a permissive environment in which operations are unchallenged; a contested environment, where some threats to airborne operations are posed; and anti-access areas, where near-peer competitors might prevent access with sophisticated integrated air defense assets and other weapons, including cyber weapons.

Network challenges, though, exist in all three realms. They include weather, environmental conditions, such as mountainous terrain, line-of-sight limitations, the use of multiple waveforms, range variations, potential enemy jamming efforts, and many more. The goal, of course, is to overcome these challenges as effectively as possible.

"I try to translate warfighter gaps into requirements that the acquisition community can begin to use" to fill the gaps, Colonel Lenertz said.

He identified four specific gaps: connectivity, capacity, data sharing; and network management. Of those, network management remains the most difficult, he said.

The colonel noted that various components of the airborne network are each managed well, but that a more comprehensive effort is still required. Part of the problem is a lack of genuinely joint management.

Even individual components, such the Joint Tactical Radio System and Link 16, are not managed as jointly as they need to be, he said.

As for the larger picture, "We don't have a very joint network capability that manages the network of networks," Colonel Lenertz said. "I would like to have a tool that can link together the current set of networks and manage them as a network of networks."

The ultimate goal, the colonel said, is to have an aerial layer network control capability that enables joint warfighters to efficiently plan, coordinate, allocate, and monitor integrated communications services. Among other things, this will allow them to synchronize and maximize the effectiveness of weapon systems when they're employed.

The colonel also discussed a host of specific challenges, including the need to tie the 'low observables' - including fifth-generation fighters (F-22s and F-35s) and the B-2 bomber - into a communication network with one another and with all other components of the network.

While this is so vital that it remains a growth area even as many other defense items are being flat-lined or cut, airborne networking efforts are not immune to budget pressures.

"When you bring something forward to the AFROC (Air Force Requirements Oversight Council) or the JROC (Joint Requirements Oversight Council), you can't just bring the justification that this is a valid requirement; you have to bring forward the fact that it can be funded," Colonel Lenertz said.

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