Boeing Eyeing How MQ-25 Can Talk To Pilots When The Carrier Cannot

Boeing photo

Boeing wants its MQ-25 to be able to talk to pilots while refueling. (Boeing)

WASHINGTON: In April, Boeing quietly hosted dozens of Navy officials for a demonstration of how its MQ-25 unmanned aerial refueler could operate in a contested environment.

The premise of the virtual demonstration, which received funding from the Office of Naval Research, was simple: What happens if the MQ-25 is on a mission and for some reason – such adversary jamming – the MQ-25 or the pilot of a plane it is refueling cannot communicate with the controller back on the aircraft carrier?

Boeing officials discussed the demonstration with a small group of reporters at the Sea Air Space exposition on Tuesday, and said the virtual demo is a step toward live flight tests and further developing the technology that could be relevant for other unmanned vehicles.

Boeing designed 16 scenarios where communications to the carrier were blocked mid-refueling, according to Don “BD” Gaddis, a retired rear admiral now working on the MQ-25 program. The exact scenarios varied from location changes required for tactical reasons to potential issues the pilot may have during a mission. The bottom line. Gaddis said, is figuring how a pilot can communicate to the MQ-25 that a change is needed without using traditional radio communications.

For the demonstration, Boeing worked with Northrop Grumman to incorporate software from the E-2 Hawkeye as well as software from a Block II Super Hornet. The actual communications happened with a mix between autonomy software Boeing is developing and using existing data links; Gaddis said the demonstration used Link 16, which is widely used across the services and foreign allies.

“And we found that, much to our surprise for E-2, there’s not any software changes required for E-2 on some of the early manned-unmanned teaming,” said Gaddis. “We showed how the E-2 could use its existing data link to vector the MQ-25 into the lambda pattern.” The demonstration also showed how manned aircraft could assist the MQ-25 in following and avoiding traffic in carrier-controlled airspace.

In addition to working towards live flight tests, Gaddis said Boeing is interested is exploring how it could use Internet Protocol data links, rather than Link 16.

For now, the effort remains just a demonstration, without an immediate impact on the Pentagon. But the premise lands squarely in the operational concepts and types of contested environments that military officials have been discussing in recent years.

And Boeing aren’t the only ones examining possibilities with data links. Northrop Grumman officials told Breaking Defense they too would be experimenting with what could be accomplished through data links used by SEWIP Block III, the Navy’s jamming program to protect vessels against anti-ship missiles.

“Last year, we created a new set of communication wave forms and demonstrated using those waveforms being transmitted through those SEWIP apertures that we have,” said Mike Meaney, vice president of land and maritime sensors at Northrop Grumman, in a recent interview. “We were able to … create new software and put new communication waveforms through the system and demonstrate a class a waveforms it could be critical to the Navy as they look at Project Overmatch.”

Expect to see more companies discuss this in the context of Project Overmatch, the Navy’s piece of the Pentagon’s effort aimed at connecting its various platforms together for a future fight. Pentagon officials have left many of the specific details of that effort, dubbed Joint All Domain Command and Control, somewhat murky in terms of how they will achieve it. But industry has been quick to start filling in possible solutions.

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