JSTARS flies online

The Air Force will demonstrate next month the ability of one of its command and control aircraft to connect to the Internet using a form of communications developed at the dawn of the last century, HF single sideband radio.

The Air Force will use new hardware and software systems to provide battle commanders aboard the E-8C Joint Stars aircraft connections to the Defense Department's classified Internet using the aircrafts existing HF SSB radios as well as other, onboard radios during the annual Red Flag combat exercise at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

If the test is successful, it could serve as the basis for developing similar systems that could be used on other Air Force command and control aircraft as well as air lifters, such as C-17s and C-130s operated by the Air Mobility Command, said Dan Hague, an electronics engineer with the Air Force Research Lab in Rome, N.Y., who helped develop the system.

Although the E-8C JSTARS aircraft has a number of sophisticated systems onboard, including a multimode side-looking radar used to detect enemy ground targets at a distance of 150 miles, it has lacked even the simplest form of Internet connectivity until now, said Lt. Col. Chris Jones, chief of battle management command and control at the Air Force Electronic Systems Center, Hansom Air Force Base, Mass.

DOD's Secret Internet Protocol Network (SIPRNET) supports applications such as chat and e-mail with attachments that Internet users take for granted, but it has not been Interim available to the JSTARS crew due to the lack of links to and from the aircraft designed to support IP traffic, Jones said The new JSTARS Internet communications system, dubbed Interim Capability for Airborne Networking (ICAN), solves that problem by using the aircraft's existing suite of radios to support IP connections, Jones said. ICAN allows the JSTARS systems operator to allocate a portion of the onboard radios to support data traffic, with control of the radios provided by a PC/104 computer running Linux software, Hague said.

Besides the HF SSB radio system, a technology first patented by communications pioneer John Carson in 1915, the JSTARS SIPRNET system, dubbed Interim Capability for Airborne Networking (ICAN), uses UHF and VHF line-of-sight radios and low-data-rate satellite links for air-to-ground and air-to-air connections, said Nick Gritti, senior program manager for advanced architectures at the Integrated Systems division of Northrop Grumman Corp., which developed JSTARS for the Air Force and the Army.

But, Gritti said, these are narrow-band radios, providing JSTARS crew with the equivalent of dial-up modem speeds, in the range of 9,600 baud to 48K. The onboard ICAN controller prioritizes traffic via these links, insuring the most important traffic gets through.

In an era when millions of Internet users have high-speed data access, running Internet systems on an aircraft using the equivalent of a dial-up modem link might not seem like a big deal. But it is to Jones, because it will allow quick exchange of vital target information and even images, providing airborne JSTARS battle commanders for the first time with the same kind of SIPRNET applications as their ground colleagues.

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