Fighters benefit from Link 16

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Martha L. Petersante
  • Electronic Systems Center Public Affairs
A recent Electronic Systems Center effort has improved targeting accuracy and allowed air operations centers to change F-15 Eagle and F-15E Strike Eagle mission variables “on the fly.”

Members of the Tactical Data Link System Program Office equipped all 22 operational F-15 active-duty and Air National Guard squadrons -- more than 600 F-15s -- with Link 16 Fighter Data Link terminals.

“(Link 16 is a) secure, jam-resistant, data-link system used to share tactically useful information among F-15s, other fighters, and sensor and command and control platforms,” said Gordy Van Guilder. He is the F-15 fielding lead for the TDL program office. “With these improvements to information sharing (compared to voice), F-15s can better execute their air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.”

Following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper realized the potential for this system to aid the Air Force’s warfighting capability and initiated a directive to outfit all Strike Eagles with FDL. He also mandated that one unit be made ready for operations in Afghanistan within a month of the attacks.

Jumper labeled Link 16 a weapon system.

“(This designation) enabled the personnel working with Tactical Data Links to create our own system program office,” said 2nd Lt. Alexis Ross, of the TDL system program office. “From an acquisition standpoint, this allows us much more flexibility and control in making decisions and pursuing our mission, and it certainly provides more funding to execute this mission.”

Training squadrons are now receiving the link and are expected to be fully functional by the second quarter of 2004, said Lt. Col. Anita Latin, program office director.

“Link 16’s major objective is to deliver the right information at the right time in the right place to the right people. This allows the warfighter to enter and successfully achieve the find, fix, track, target, engage and assess kill chain,” Latin said.

This technology allows the aircrew to receive up–to-date information, which enhances mission performance. For example, Van Guilder said if there is a change in weather, threats or targets, the command and control platforms can feed changes via the datalink directly to the cockpit. F-15 pilots can also now exchange information on their own positions and what they have detected with their radars to improve mutual support and enhance targeting.

“(TDLs are) key enablers for numerous warfighting capabilities,” Latin said. “They allow for clear, precise information superiority within the battle space, accelerating the warfighter’s decision and execution process.”

Speaking about Operation Iraqi Freedom, Jumper said, “What you used to have to convey verbally at great inefficiency is now represented to you in this digital format on your screen. And digital messages and codes are used to give you very precise information. All of that makes target location just that much easier.”

Fighter Data Link was specifically designed for and tested on the F-15. The system in the F-15 consists of the installed terminal and its integration with existing avionics, displays and controls.

Electronic Systems Center workers here played a critical role in the acceleration of Link 16 into the F-15E. Just 15 days after they received the go-ahead from the commander of Air Combat Command, crews took the first flight, officials said.

“However (the process was sped up because it) was operationally necessary to support Operation Enduring Freedom,” Van Guilder said.

When F-15 units were tasked for operations Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom, the fielding team adjusted priorities and schedules to ensure all F-15 units deployed and successfully employed the data-link capability. This significant effort included on-site support to the rapid acceleration of two F-15E squadrons at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.

“It is almost as important as having a radar or electronic countermeasures before going into the (area of responsibility). We leave mark points for each other as one flight is entering and the other is egressing,” said Lt. Col. Steve Hughes, 4th Fighter Wing chief of weapons and tactics at Seymour Johnson AFB. “We thread through the tanker tracks and congested airspace (more safely) than ever before and share designations between flight members.”

Because of its success, Link 16’s use is beginning to progress to other airframes, such as the B-1B Lancer, F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-22 Raptor, according to officials.

“The F-16’s will probably have initial operating capability within a year,” said George Lewis, the lead for FDL acquisitions.

Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, the lead F-16 operational unit for Link 16, is beginning the fielding efforts, Lewis said.

“It is an exciting time to be involved in the rapid expansion of integrated information sharing,” Latin said. “We’re on the leading edge of defining a new way of fighting and winning wars.”