Air force materiel command news service (Sept. 23, 2004): airborne network takes "wireless" to new heights.
Engineers at the 412th Flight Test Squadron here and the Air Force systems networking program office at Gunter Annex, Ala., developed and flight tested the airborne system onboard the C-135 Speckled Trout.
The LAN is designed to provide users aboard the Speckled Trout access to classified and unclassified Web sites and connection to their home-station networks while in flight worldwide. The eventual goal is to make the network infrastructure small enough to carry on any executive aircraft in a small suitcase, experts said.
The Air Force chief of staff flies on the modified C-135. Fully equipped with radio equipment, data links, and cryptographic sets, the aircraft serves a secondary role as a test bed for proposed command and control systems.
People here conducted local flight tests recently and tested the system again on a cross-country mission Sept. 20. They said they plan to continue operational testing with Gen. John P. Jumper and his staff onboard in the future.
"The primary objective [of these first tests] was to prove out the system in flight, to check the airworthiness of the equipment and see how it can handle varying temperatures and vibrations during takeoffs and landings, and to test its supportability throughout the flight," said Capt. Dick Wong, 412th FLTS flight test engineer and test director.
Experts will eventually take the aircraft to locations worldwide to see how the system manages the handoffs with the satellites and maintains connectivity with the users' home-station networks, Wong said.
During initial testing, users sent e-mail, surfed the Internet, and accessed their home-station networks through the virtual private network, said Derick Catman, an engineer with the networking program office.
"[The network] allows users to be perceived ... as being physically located at the home station even though they are actually thousands of miles away," Catman said. "It allows access to items and things on the network that would typically be barred from outside access."
The signal must travel from the aircraft via an international maritime satellite terminal to a satellite in a geosynchronous orbit and down to two different ground stations located an ocean apart before finally arriving at the ground entry point at Gunter. However, the system still runs more than twice as fast as a typical dial-up modem connection, Catman said.
"The LAN capability that we have on this jet far exceeds anything out there in both the civilian and military markets," said Tech. Sgt. Dan Hoglund, an airborne communications evaluator and test conductor.
Although some of the other aircraft within the executive airlift fleet have similar network systems, much of the equipment is spread throughout the aircraft and is about 30-percent larger than the single rack developed for Speckled Trout, Capt. Julie Elenbaum said. She is the 412th FLTS test and engineering flight commander and program manager for this endeavor.
"The eventual goal is to miniaturize the system even more to make it one small case for classified and one small case for unclassified," she said. "This will allow the capability to go on a larger variety of aircraft."
In this age of information warfare, it is vitally important to have this type of capability in the hands of the military's senior leaders no matter where they are in the world, Wong said.
Hoglund was on board the Speckled Trout on Sept. 11, 2001, with Gen. Henry H. Shelton, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I feel if we had this capability back then, our mission would have carried on to overseas," Hoglund said. "We had to come back only because our access to information was limited by our equipment and our location."
Elenbaum said she is proud of the work her team has accomplished because she knows it will make the customers more prepared to do their jobs.
"This is an office in the sky," she said. "The goal is to give them the same capabilities they would have in their offices back at the Pentagon or wherever else while en route to other locations around the globe."
by Capt. Kelly George, USAF