Utah Air National Guard now fields modified KC-135 Stratotanker able to enhance Battlespace Communications for all players in the Indo-Pacific region

Utah Air National Guard now fields modified KC-135 Stratotanker able to enhance Battlespace Communications for all players in the Indo-Pacific region

By Dario Leone
Jul 25 2023
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Modified KC-135 Stratotanker

History is being made during exercise Northern Edge 23-2 as the Utah Air National Guard’s 151st Air Refueling Wing, working with the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Test Center, sent their modified KC-135 Stratotanker to Kadena Air Base, Japan, for use in the Western Pacific.

The KC-135, equipped with the Real-Time Information in the Cockpit system, otherwise known as RTIC, and the Collins Aerospace Intelligent Gateway flew alongside the Raytheon Multi-Program Testbed, otherwise known as RMT, as well as numerous joint and coalition aircraft, to modernize and enhance battlespace communications for all players in the Indo-Pacific region.

As told by Senior Airman Sebastian Romawac, 18th Wing Public Affairs, in the article Connected Battlespace modernizes the fight in the Indo-Pacific, the RTIC program of record provides real-time situational awareness to KC-135 crews by displaying enemy threats, target data and allied force locations on an avionics display located in the cockpit.

Utah Air National Guard now fields modified KC-135 Stratotanker able to enhance Battlespace Communications for all players in the Indo-Pacific region
A KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 151st Air Refueling Wing is parked during exercise Northern Edge 23-2 at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Jul. 11, 2023. The Real-time Information in the Cockpit system provides command and control capabilities to KC-135 crews by displaying enemy threats, target data and allied force locations on an avionics display located in the cockpit.

“Prior to RTIC, we were completely relying on outside sources to tell us where threats were, let us know if we were in danger and tell us where our receivers were,” said US Air Force Maj. Mike Starley, Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center KC-135 test detachment director. “Now the KC-135 crews have a moving map screen available in the cockpit and can make their own tactical decisions on whether or not they’re at risk, which will allow them to get closer to the fight and offload fuel.”

Modified KC-135 Stratotanker: enhancing Battlespace Communications

Building upon RTIC, the Utah ANG and AATC, in coordination with Collins Aerospace, an RTX business, have been testing a connected battlespace through what the team calls the Intelligent Gateway. This new advancement for the KC-135 was able to bridge beyond line-of sight networks with operational and strategic level information to line-of-sight datalinks at the tactical edge. This allows the transfer of situational awareness and closure of decision cycles between joint and air operations centers, tactical command and control nodes, and joint and coalition assets from sub-surface all the way to space.

With the Intelligent Gateway, air operations centers are provided with a live picture of the battlespace and have situational awareness they did not have before. Joint, allied, partner forces can communicate through the KC-135 Intelligent Gateway to make tactical decisions with a common operating picture. From the warfighter in the air, to the commander on the ground, everyone’s situational awareness is enhanced through the KC-135 Intelligent Gateway.

Utah Air National Guard now fields modified KC-135 Stratotanker able to enhance Battlespace Communications for all players in the Indo-Pacific region
The Raytheon Multi-Program Testbed (RMT) takes off during exercise Northern Edge 23-2 at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Jul. 12, 2023. The RMT uses a combination of radar and electronic intelligence sensors to capture information on simulated threats which is then passed on to allied players for enhanced command and control.

“We only have so many surveillance aircraft available and in a theater as large as the Indo-Pacific, there’s going to be a lot of holes with no command and control,” said Starley. “But we’re always going to have a tanker there, no matter what. Now we’re able to take advantage of all that space and use the KC-135, that’s already in the fight anyway, for C2.”

Working in tandem with the Raytheon Multi-Program Testbed

During Northern Edge 23-2, the Utah ANG KC-135 is working in tandem with the RMT to test advanced communication and intelligence-gathering capabilities. The RMT uses a combination of radar and electronic intelligence sensors to capture information on simulated threats. Onboard processors then generate a clear targeting solution that is passed on to the Utah ANG KC-135 and then to joint and allied players on the network for C2 purposes.

The KC-135 team from Utah ANG and the RMT participated in Northern Edge 23-1 recently held in Alaska as well.

Utah Air National Guard now fields modified KC-135 Stratotanker able to enhance Battlespace Communications for all players in the Indo-Pacific region
US Air Force Maj. Joe Payne, center, 970th Airborne Air Control Squadron mission systems operator, directs U.S. Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Chilton Orelien, Marine Air Control Squadron-4 weapons and tactics instructor, and U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Morgan Finnegan, 623rd Air Control Squadron surveillance technician, as they check satellite connections on a KC-135 Stratotanker during exercise Northern Edge 23-2 at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Jul. 12, 2023. The Intelligent Gateway connectivity combined with Battlespace Command and Control Center Air Battle Management hardware/software provides command and control capabilities to the ABMs conducting a distributed tactical C2 experiment during exercise NE 23-2. 

“The Collins/RTX team in collaboration with the Utah ANG picked up in Japan, where we left off in Alaska,” said Lora Magliocco, Collins Aerospace Director of Connected Battlespace Joint Experimentation and Demonstration. “The team demonstrated the value of connecting the battlespace by providing relevant command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data to decision makers at machine speeds. The connected battlespace opens new opportunities to apply artificial intelligence, big data concepts and advanced networking at the tactical edge.”

Real-world proficiency

This training enables real-world proficiency in sustaining joint forces through detecting, locating, tracking, and engaging units at sea, in the air, on land and in cyberspace in response to a range of mission areas. These systems are being stress tested and matured in the Indo-Pacific region during exercise Northern Edge 23-2 and are supporting Joint All-Domain Command and Control and Advanced Battle Management System initiatives by not only increasing communication capabilities, but also drastically shortening real-world decision-making timelines.

“When an aircraft lands after a mission with intelligence, surveillance, or reconnaissance, there is usually a 72-hour air tasking order cycle before a decision is made to go after that target,” said Starley. “In theory, we could take that 72 hour ATO cycle and shrink it to 72 minutes or less, meeting commander’s intent.”

Utah Air National Guard now fields modified KC-135 Stratotanker able to enhance Battlespace Communications for all players in the Indo-Pacific region
A KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 151st Air Refueling Wing takes off during exercise Northern Edge 23-2 at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Jul. 12, 2023. The Intelligent Gateway connectivity combined with Battlespace Command and Control Center Air Battle Management hardware/software provides command and control capabilities to the ABMs conducting a distributed tactical C2 experiment during NE 23-2.

The Utah ANG and the KC-135 Stratotanker

Utah ANG’s largest component, the 151st Air Refueling Wing includes 17 squadrons and 5 group commanders who are committed to building excellent organizations within the wing.

The Utah ANG was founded on Nov. 18, 1946 and began as a fighter-bomber unit, but now serves an air refueling mission. Its assigned mission has changed three times over the past 75 years. The type of aircraft flown by the wing has changed a total of eight times. The current primary aircraft assigned to the wing are the KC-135R Stratotanker. The 151st ARW has been operating the KC-135 since it was originally assigned to Utah in 1978, when the unit became part of the Strategic Air Command. The Strategic Air Command became the Air Mobility Command in June 1992.

The KC-135 Stratotanker provides the core aerial refueling capability for the United States Air Force and has excelled in this role for more than 60 years. This unique asset enhances the Air Force’s capability to accomplish its primary mission of global reach. It also provides aerial refueling support to Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and allied nation aircraft. The KC-135 is also capable of transporting litter and ambulatory patients using patient support pallets during aeromedical evacuations.

Photo credit: Senior Airman Sebastian Romawac / U.S. Air Force

KC-135R print
This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. KC-135R Stratotanker 161st Air Refueling Wing, 197th Air Refueling Squadron “Copperheads”, 63-8038 – Arizona Air National Guard – Sky Harbor ANG Base, AZ

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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