Joint forces test net-centric tech

JEFX '06 to let combat veterans test-drive new systems

BACN in the sky. The BACN system could eventually be carried aloft on Air Force Global Hawk aircraft.

Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Matthews/U.S. Air Force

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will use their war experience to test the combat-readiness of the next set of new technologies on the horizon.

Can the Theater Battle Operations Net-Centric Environment, or TBONE, plan and assess Air Force missions online and in real time well enough to satisfy servicemen who have returned from the Gulf region?

Will the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node effectively relay voice and data communications among disparate networks in searing desert heat?

These are two of the technologies servicemen are evaluating during the Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment 2006, taking place April 17 to May 5.

The aim of JEFX (pronounced 'jeff-ex'), held every other year, is to put maturing technologies into the hands of warfighters for assessment in realistic scenarios.

TBONE on the menu

The exercise, run by the Combined Air Operations Center (AOC) at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, will involve joint-services organizations coast to coast. A total of 42 Air Force and Navy aircraft will participate in the live-fly portion of the experiment.

Military personnel from Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom also will take part.

The Air Force Command and Control and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Center (AFC2ISRC) at Langley Air Force Base, Va., is a key sponsor of JEFX. Its responsibilities include modernizing the AOCs with new information technologies to improve how air operations are planned and conducted.

TBONE is one of the major new technologies combat veterans will evaluate during JEFX '06. Developed by the Air Force center's Command and Control Battle Lab with help from Intelligent Software Solutions Inc. of Colorado Springs, Colo., and from Oracle Corp., TBONE will migrate the AOC to a Web-enabled, desktop application environment.

TBONE is a major software rewrite of the AOC's primary automated planning tool, Theater Battle Management Core Systems. TBMCS generates and disseminates the air tasking order, the aircraft and target assignments for the next day's missions. Unix-based TBMCS was designed to support air operations in a linear, static environment.

As the Air Force identified new requirements, additional applications and databases were added, officials said, the system had become overly complex and inflexible.

TBONE will integrate 37 applications to create a services-oriented architecture approach with a single database.

Maj. Gen. Tommy Crawford, AFC2ISRC's commander, said, 'TBONE will speed planning and execution and significantly reduce the number of software applications and personnel in the AOC.'

He said the system can generate air tasking orders in collaboration with participating air wings and squadrons using Web interfaces. 'Those units will be able to easily access air operations information [for the first time] from outside the AOC through a Web portal.'

Col. Chuck Parks, director of the Air Force Experimentation Office, said TBMCS relies on spreadsheets, yellow sticky notes and phone calls by AOC personnel to aircraft units and other organizations. But TBONE will permit continuous planning and re-planning of missions as well as daily assessment.

'Today, there's no way of assessing what happened in the previous day's air tasking order. With TBONE, we'll have the ability to assess what we have executed,' he said.

TBONE is undergoing early testing in parallel with JEFX '06, to be followed by operational testing this summer. It will be integrated into the next version of TBMCS in the Air Force's five large AOCs in Qatar, Korea, Germany, Hawaii and Arizona in fiscal 2007 and 2008.

TBONE is a good example of how the Air Force is using rapid prototyping techniques, particularly for new IT systems, to speed the development and fielding of new technologies.

'Our IT acquisition system rules are broken,' Crawford said. 'If you use the normal acquisition process, with its numerous oversight reviews, it's about five years before you start writing the first line of software code for a new system. We've got to break out of that paradigm.'

The Command and Control Battle Lab fleshes out IT initiatives using relatively small amounts of seed money and then brings in warfighters to help wring out the new software. When a major new IT system is ready, it is assessed during a JEFX.

'For AOC modernization, that's the way we're tackling the IT systems acquisition dilemma, in partnership with the Air Force Electronic Systems Center,' Crawford said. 'We're probably cutting four to five years off the normal acquisition process.'

Bringing home the BACN

Aside from TBONE, the exercise will give leaders something else to chew on.
'Everyone thinks that TBONE is going to be the big hit of JEFX '06,' Crawford said. 'But what I believe is really going to steal the show is what we'll be doing with BACN and various data links.'

The Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, developed by Northrop Grumman Corp., would be carried on a manned or unmanned aircraft at altitudes of 50,000 feet or higher. It's likely to be hosted in five or six years on a long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, such as an Air Force Global Hawk or Predator B, or perhaps sooner on a modified business jet. During JEFX '06, BACN will be airborne on a manned high-altitude NASA WB-57 aircraft.

'BACN makes dissimilar data and voice radios interoperable,' Crawford said, 'because it can bridge, or translate, diverse types of radio signals transmitted on different frequencies, such as VHF or UHF.

'It extends the range of line-of-sight radios and tactical data links and can relay information to ground and airborne users as well as, via satellite, to distant AOCs or command centers. Depending on the flight endurance of the aircraft, we may only need one BACN in orbit to cover an area the size of Iraq.'

BACN also functions as a forward tactical airborne server with on-demand access. For example, a satellite image of enemy locations can be uploaded to BACN from an AOC and then downloaded by a warfighter in a forward area using a handheld device.

An Army Humvee with a mounted Rapid Attack Information Dissemination-Execution Relay vehicle will act as a ground node for BACN during JEFX '06. A single BACN can service 50 RAIDERS and they, in turn, can each service 500 users on the ground.

'I believe that BACN will generate enough excitement during the JEFX for funding to be included in the Air Force's [draft budget request] for 2008,' Crawford said.

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