Crafting Effective C2/ISR in the Contested Battlespace: The Impact of the CNI System

By Robbin Laird

In my article on “Standing C2 on its Head,” argued that  C2 systems are no longer commodities added platform by platform; they are the operating infrastructure within which platforms find their role within a scalable, tailorable combat force.

But how best to build out such an operating infrastructure based on the force we have, rather than envisaging a new world in 2030?

A key building block in reshaping what C2/ISR can provide for the combat force is how the F-35 is reshaping the combat forces of which it is a part.

In that earlier article. I highlighted how the Marines are experiencing this impact.

“The communications, navigation and identification (CNI) system within the F-35 enables the Marines to not just integrate their F-35s and to work a different approach to knowledge management to inform the maneuver force, but allows Marine Corps F-35s to be integratable with joint and coalition F-35s as well.

“The integration of the F-35 into the Marine Corps and its ability to work with joint and coalition F-35s provides significant reach to F-35 empowered mobile bases afloat or ashore

“In a recent interview which I conducted with Major Brian “Flubes” Hansell, MAWTS-1 F-35 Division Head, we discussed at length what the coming of the F-35 and its integratability capabilities meant for the evolution of the USMC and its role with joint and coalition partners.

“The coming of the F-35 to the USMC has expanded their ability to operate within a broader kill web and to both empower their expeditionary bases as well as to contribute to the broader kill web approach.

“The Marine’s F-35s are part of the broader joint and coalition force of F-35s, and notably in the Pacific this extends the reach significantly of the Marine’s F-35s and brings greater situational awareness as well as reach to other strike platforms to the force operating from an expeditionary base as well as enhancing the kill web reach for the joint or coalition force.

“As Major Hansell put it: “By being an expeditionary, forward-based service, we’re effectively extending the bounds of the kill web for the entire joint and coalition force.”

The F-35 is not just another combat asset, but at the heart of empowering an expeditionary kill web-enabled and enabling force. On the one hand, the F-35 leads the wolfpack. As Major Hansell put it: “During every course, we are lucky to have one of the lead software design engineers for the F-35 come out as a guest lecturer to teach our students the intricacies of data fusion.

“During one of these lectures, a student asked the engineer to compare the design methodology of the F-35 Lightning II to that of the F-22 Raptor.

“I like this anecdote because it is really insightful into how the F-35 fights.

“To paraphrase, this engineer explained that “the F-22 was designed to be the most lethal single-ship air dominance fighter ever designed.  Period.

“The F-35, however, was able to leverage that experience to create a multi-role fighter designed from its very inception to hunt as a pack.”

Simply put, the F-35 does not tactically operate as a single aircraft.

It hunts as a network-enabled, cooperative four-ship fighting a fused picture, and was designed to do so from the very beginning.

“We hunt as a pack.

Future upgrades may look to expand the size of the pack.”

The F-35 is a unique platform, and how the platform operates as well.

It has been designed from the ground up as a low observable platform to operate in contested air space means.

To maintain a low observable signature the aircraft is made from composites and its sensors must be embedded into the skin of the aircraft to ensure that it can operate as a low observable asset.

Anything the aircraft transmits must also be low observable.

This requires the use of low probability to intercept /low probability of detection (LPI/LPD) waveforms and technologies.

The F-35 has been designed from the ground up to be networked within the battlespace.

To do this, it needs low latency communications capabilities that are also low observable.

The F-35 is designed to operate as a networked pack that can then be networked to the rest of the battlespace with the right architecture.

The pack operates at the tactical edge and then enables the entire force throughout the battelspace.

These platform requirements provide the demand side for building the communications system onboard the aircraft.

And given the challenge of combing low latency with low observability, the opportunity to shape in effect a flying smart phone solution was required for the aircraft to fight as a pack.

Given the limited space on any combat aircraft, size, weight, and power (SWaP) must be managed and reduced to improve operational efficiency and logistics, increase mission life, and reduce the total cost of system ownership.

System upgrades are driving added functionality and increased performance, placing additional attention on SWaP.

The solution set worked by Northrop Grumman. the contractor responsible for developing, delivering, and upgrading the CNI system onboard the F-35, provides an ability to use the sensors embedded on the aircraft and to flow that data into a fused system.

In turn, this fused system enables the communication system writ large to both draw upon a network of sensors and to communicate the data fused from those sensors to trusted partners in the battle space.

The system entails an ability to manage the aircraft’s skin and network of sensors through data fusion into a unique box carried onboard the aircraft.

That box holds a series of cards, which enable three functionalities to be fused within the system, namely communications, navigation and identification and that is why it is called the CNI.

The three functions are managed and executed through the CNI system which draws upon the same network of sensors thus providing both low latency transfer of data from the aircraft and effective use of limited space onboard the aircraft.

The box required onboard the aircraft was designed to deal with the data fusion opportunities and the SWAP requirements.

How this box operates and evolves is a key part of the overall Northrop Grumman approach.  Overtime, the box has shrunk in size, and the cards have become more capable as hardware capabilities to operate evolving software have been transformed. The interaction among what the cards can do provides the interactive capability which the CNI manages.

Cards can hold different wave forms to enable various ways to connect to combat assets in the battlespace.

The CNI system on an F-35 can manage 27 different waveforms, including the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) waveform.

MADL is the unique low latency wave form is used for other low latency assets.

MADL requires low latency to support machine to machine interactions between platforms as well.

In contrast, other wave forms, such as Link 16, for example, can be used to inform higher latency assets via that wave form of key information useful to those assets operating in the wider combat space.

The MADL wave form along with how F-35s process data and manage enables F-35s to operate as an integrated combat package able to collectively fuse data, and to do so within a specific force package which by being interactively fused provides higher levels of accuracy than any one combat aircraft operating by itself could provide.

The current F-35 software configuration allows for combined sensor fusion to be shared and able to work seamlessly through the CNI system, and with the MAD wave form they are able to communicate and share situational awareness and to operate in contested air space and make decisions at the tactical edge.

This capability sets the standards for what being able to operate in a contested environment is all about.

Contested airspace ultimately is the ability to operate within that battlespace and to shape effective decisions about how to disrupt the adversaries command and control and key nodes of combat capability to enable the entire force to be used effectively in shaping escalation dominance.

F-35 Pack Operations moving forward highlights and provides a case study of the importance of shaping a more integrated combat force one which can operate in distributed battlespace but be aggregated at the point of attack as the opportunity and need arrives.

It is about reshaping the combat force to become more integratable and when considering new platforms ensuring that integratability is built into these platforms.

It is also a leverage point into shaping a broader approach of C2/ISR capabilities necessary to enable the kind of combat force which can operate across the spectrum of conflict.

The F-35 is a unique platform, but its build out and operational experience sets a dynamic background against which a broader shift in understanding a way ahead to enhance the integratability of a multi-domain force.

Indeed, within Northrop Grumman, there are two interactive epicenters for shaping a way ahead.

The first epicenter is associated with the F-35 and crafting a way for F-35s to work together in the combat space and to share data across the extended combat space.

The second epicenter is associated with their new “radio” program, the most recent manifestation of which is the SPOC “radio,” or the Software Programmable Open Mission Systems (OMS) Compliant (SPOC) open-architecture networking terminal and will deal with this effort in the next article.

These capabilities are about ensuring combat dominance, not just about linking the lowest common denominator into a combat cloud an exposing the entire combat force to C2 disruptions, or worse, infiltration, masking and selective takeovers by adversaries.

The ability to share C2 decision making data across the F-35 global enterprise and make that data available other key elements of a task force operating in contested multi-domain operational area of interest is essential to its ability to work at the higher end of the fight.

See also, the folowing:

Standing C2 on Its Head: It is a Force Generator, Not Simply a Force Enabler