Airborne ops centers to get $20M-plus comm upgrade

The Air Force plans to upgrade the communications systems on its fleet of four E4B Boeing 747 aircraft that serve as National Airborne Operations Centers (NAOC), under a $20 million-plus program that will see each of the planes equipped with advanced commercial switching and telephone systems.

The Oklahoma Air Logistics Center will manage the NAOC upgrade program with support provided by the Air Force Electronic Systems Center, Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. ESC plans to install a high-speed, fiber-optic, local-area network backbone on the E4B fleet that will tie together all computer and communications systems on the aircraft, according to Lt. Col. Joseph Bisognano, communications group product manager in the center's communications and airspace management directorate.

The NAOC fleet's fiber-optic LAN will also be equipped with Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) switching capability, according to George Providakes, a Mitre Corp. consultant working on the program. Providakes said the E4B upgrade program stems from "a request from [secretary of Defense] William J. Perry to provide a modern communications infrastructure [on the NAOCs] for himself and future secretaries and commanders in chief."

A Comprehensive Picture

The four NAOCs were designed to provide the National Command Authority with a comprehensive picture of the strategic and tactical battlefield or operational areas from anywhere in the world. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also uses the E4B fleet to help coordinate its operations. FEMA intends to station a NAOC in Atlanta this summer during the Olympic Games.

Richard Bibb, director of federal operations at Fore Systems Inc., an ATM switch manufacturer, said ATM technology lends itself well to the NAOC mission. "The biggest benefit of ATM in a command center environment," Bibb said, "is that it can integrate voice, video and data over the same infrastructure. You can just put in one LAN and integrate all different kinds of traffic on the plane."

Bibb said Fore Systems has already provided ATM switches for installation on the Joint Chiefs of Staff's experimental aircraft, "Speckled Trout," a highly modified C-135, the military version of the Boeing 707.

ATM also allows separation of traffic by security classification, Bibb said, permitting the Air Force to route unclassified FEMA traffic off the NAOC while at the same time sending classified traffic to military units supporting a disaster-relief mission.

Providakes said the Air Force will acquire all gear competitively but has not yet identified vendors. The E4B upgrade program also calls for installation of International Maritime Satellite Organization terminals, he said, which will provide six commercial telephone channels supporting Secure Telephone Unit-III telephones.

The Air Force also plans to install military UHF satcom terminals on the E4B fleet, and Providakes envisions using the upgraded satellite systems to transmit ATM cells from the aircraft to the ground.

Other changes under consideration for the E4B fleet include upgrading the computer workstations and communications, including installation of direct broadcast satellite terminals, Providakes said. He said a separate study is ongoing to consider providing some of the same upgrades to the Air Force VIP fleet, including the 747 that serves as Air Force One.

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