J-STARS fields airborne networking with innovative support concept

  • Published
  • By by 1st Lt. Jamie Cubarrubia
  • 116th Computer Systems Squadron
Airmen and Soldiers flying in the U.S. Air Force's E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System will have access to Beyond Line of Sight airborne SIPRNet and secure telephone capability, thanks to the Airmen assigned to the 116th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and the 116th Computer Systems Squadron.

BLOS, recently installed on the entire E-8C fleet, replaces the Joint Capability for Airborne Networks. It overcomes JCAN's glaring limitation--the requirement to have a direct line of sight to a limited number of ground stations with which it can share information. In addition to overcoming this significant operational hurdle, BLOS can deliver information at a rate of up to 256 kbps, eight times faster compared to JCAN's 32 kbps. BLOS connects Joint STARS to the DOD's Global Information Grid through direct connections with satellites.

These connections, unhindered by the earth's curvature, give airborne battle managers and ground-based leadership alike unprecedented access to the most up-to-date ground targeting intelligence data available. Through the BLOS connection, Joint STARS operators have the ability to share information with any DOD entity via SIPRnet mail, text messaging and secure telephone.

During a recent visit to the 116th Air Control Wing, Lt. Gen. Robert Elder, 8th Air Force commander, commented that it is imperative that cyber net-centric systems such as BLOS get implemented because Joint STARS was designed for this type of information fusion and information sharing. He also reiterated that cyber is a vital war fighting domain, the only domain that transcends all four war fighting domains of land, sea, air and space.

From a mission crew perspective, Lt Col John Verhage, Director of Operations, 128th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, had nothing but positive comments about BLOS.

"I can get more information, faster, to the ground commander so he can make decisions on the battlefield for positioning of forces that involve 'Time Critical' decisions," he said.

Besides changing the way Air Force operations personnel carry out their missions, BLOS is also leading aircraft maintenance and communications personnel to re-evaluate the way they go about their business. Employing many net-centric commercial off the shelf communications technologies, the way BLOS equipment is configured and maintained blurs the lines between the two separate fields. Traditionally, only maintenance personnel are qualified to work on airborne systems, while communications personnel were confined to the base network control centers, help desks and as local client support administrators.

The 116th ACW at Robins, the Air Force's sole Joint STARS unit, is blazing the trail in defining roles and responsibilities between how two different career fields--aircraft maintenance and communications--work together to ensure theater commanders have 24/7 access to the vital ground intelligence Joint STARS provides. Two different squadrons in two different groups -- 116th CSS, assigned to the 116th Operations Group, and 116th AMXS, assigned to the 116th Maintenance Group -- have pooled their combined resources to handle the unforeseen challenges brought about by BLOS.

CSS communications airmen will provide back shop configuration and troubleshooting assistance to AMXS maintainers, who in turn will install and maintain the BLOS equipment onboard E-8C Joint STARS aircraft.

Lt. Col. Fred Massey, 116th CSS commander, was committed from the beginning to lending his squadron's support for BLOS.

"I think we bring important skills and knowledge to support AMXS and provide mission aircrews this critical connectivity," Lt. Col. Massey said. "The BLOS airborne networking system installed on the E-8C consists of the same equipment communications troops are trained on by the Air Force in tech school, such as network servers, routers and firewalls."

Getting BLOS operational quickly was directed from CENTCOM.

"BLOS came down as an urgent operational need directed from CENTCOM to be fielded to the FOL in the minimum amount of time," said Lt. Col. Mark Weber, 116th AMXS commander.

As a result of this, both squadrons started searching for the smartest ways of doing business.

"This technology is so new that my career field hasn't quite caught up yet... the Air Force is in the process of creating a new career field to deal with all these new airborne networks coming down, but for now, the mission dictates this unique interaction between AMXS and CSS," said Master Sgt. Jason Page, 116th AMXS.

With more and more U.S. assets making use of net-centric COTS technology, arrangements such as the one between CSS and AMXS could become more commonplace throughout the Air Force, until a new career field specifically tailored to handle airborne networks connected to the GIG is finalized.

The Air Force can look to the 116th ACW for lessons in how to utilize, exploit and support follow-on emerging net-centric platforms.