586th FLTS helps showcase data link improvement

  • Published
  • By Bradley Hicks
  • AEDC Public Affairs

The 586th Flight Test Squadron was involved last year in the testing and showcasing of the new Heimdall enhanced capability for legacy tactical data links.

The 586 FLTS is part of the 704th Test Group at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. The 704 TG is a unit of AEDC, headquartered at Arnold Air Force Base, Tennessee. 

Heimdall was developed to increase data sharing for legacy tactical data links, or TDLs, in contested environments and improve warfighter readiness.

The U.S., NATO and coalition forces TDLs are for transmitting and exchanging real-time data among allies for shared situational awareness. Like the 586 FLTS, personnel at Hanscom were involved in Heimdall testing.

Sponsored by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center Aerial Networks Division, Tactical Datalinks and Gateways Branch, the Heimdall project is being developed in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory.

“Heimdall provides a critical capability to existing tactical data links that ensures continued operation in future fights,” Michael McAuliffe, program manager, Tactical Datalinks and Gateways Branch, said. “What our system does is provide the Air Force with an advanced capability not only for the aircraft of the future but the aircraft of today. We have to keep these current platforms relevant for the modern fight, and that’s our objective with Heimdall.”

Linda McCabe with the Tactical Networks group of the MIT Lincoln Laboratory served as the lead technical planner for 586 FLTS tests and demonstrations of Heimdall that occurred in May 2021. The technology was demonstrated during the 2021 Northern Edge event, which McCabe said served a sort of “graduation exercise” for Heimdall.

“For us, the incredible advantage of going to an event like a Northern Edge is the sheer number of assets that are involved,” she said.

Northern Edge is a U.S.-only military field training exercise event that occurs every other year at several facilities and in several areas in Alaska. The joint training exercise, conducted by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and led by Pacific Air Forces, emphasizes multi-domain and distributed operations, tactical to operational level requirements and innovative initiatives. The event provides the opportunity to train tier-three and tier-four tactical units in joint training, interoperability and readiness. It is also an experimentation venue for the testing of tactics, techniques and procedural innovations.

More than 13,000 personnel across all branches of the military participated in Northern Edge 2021, which took place over 12 days in May. Nearly 250 aircraft flew more than 3,300 hours, including more than 1,200 sorties. 

There were more than 50 experiment initiatives at Northern Edge 2021. The 586 FLTS supported three of these initiatives with the payload it carried during the 2021 event.

“This is really an opportunity for our forces to exercise their full capability in a way that they can’t in other places because of airspace size restrictions or frequency restrictions or all of the things that you just can’t do when we have smaller, tighter test spaces close to populated areas,” McCabe said. “You can do all of those things up in Alaska.”

Prior to its demonstration at Northern Edge, Heimdall was tested over a two-and-a-half-week period in the spring of 2021 at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Originally, those involved had planned to begin testing earlier at WSMR to allow six to eight months from the end of testing there to the start of Northern Edge. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic compressed this timeline, and the Lincoln and 586 FLTS team went straight from testing at WSMR to demonstration at Northern Edge.

“We set up an exceptionally robust testing environment at WSMR, and we were thrilled that we were able to do that,” McCabe said. “We partnered with a lot of different folks on the base there, and the support was fabulous. We were thrilled with the support we received from everybody, from the 586th to the 746th, plus the Army side of the house. Everybody was really, really great.”

Through its partnership with the 586 FLTS, the Lincoln Laboratory team had access to the squadron’s C-12J Huron at Northern Edge. The team was able to add not only Heimdall, but two additional payloads to the plane for demonstration. One of the other Lincoln technologies integrated on the C-12 was the Common Tactical Edge Network software prototype that enables mesh networking and mission-tailored data among tactical platforms.

Along with the C-12 from the 586 FLTS, the Lincoln team also had access during the testing at WSMR and demonstration at Northern Edge to an F-15C Eagle from the 40th Flight Test Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. This allowed them to demonstrate the same technology carried on the C-12 in a smaller form factor.

“For us, the big difference is that F-15 can get in the fray and behave like it would normally and really give us that tactical context to ensure that what we built is actually working in that environment,” McCabe said. “Because it has a much bigger space for payload, the C-12 gave us the benefit of actually having our operators sitting onboard. We were able to have a baseline capability so that we could do an apples-to-apples comparison of what warfighters have now versus what we’re proposing, and then we could compare the data.”

Another benefit of demonstrating the Heimdall system at Northern Edge was that it provided a more realistic environment compared to the more controlled setting at WSMR.

“From a Heimdall perspective, we were really excited to go to Northern Edge because of the size of the event,” McCabe said. “When we were at WSMR, we were able to control everything, and it was a much more engineering-focused test. We actually had a much more robust threat at WSMR than we did at Northern Edge, but at Northern Edge you have the full-up tactical network, and that allowed us from a capacity perspective to really get some good data.”

Editorial note: This article includes information from the article, “Hanscom team demos data sharing technology,” posted to the Holloman AFB website on June 24, 2021.