Stratotankers to add communications to fuel duty
Stars and Stripes June 7, 2003
It’s an old war bird that ages more on every mission; the Air Force wants to replace it with a newer version.
But until the KC-135 Stratotanker gets a replacement, the venerable plane — of which more than 540 are on active and reserve duty — is getting a new role.
The Air Force is making good use of unused space aboard its fleet, a change expected to pay wartime dividends. A pallet of electronics — called ROBE, for roll-on beyond line of sight enhancement — in effect turns the four-engine flying gas station into a high-flying Intranet provider.
Measuring about 2 feet by 4 feet, ROBE can be strapped to the aircraft’s floor like any other pallet.
It’s the first in a family of scalable modular airborne relay terminals, or SMART, to be used aboard tankers, according to a news release from the Air Force Command and Control and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center at Langley Air Force Base, Va.
Officials said the electronics, flight-tested during Operation Iraqi Freedom, connect battle directors in an operations center with aircraft in, or heading for, battle.
Moving critical information is crucial to rapid targeting and enhancing awareness of battle conditions, a senior officer said. “One of the goals ... is the better integration of military assets,” said Lt. Gen. John Baker, Air Mobility Command vice commander.
“The smart tanker concept, which expands the air-refueling mission by including an additional role as a communications platform, is a perfect fit.”
The new electronics should increase the tankers’ effectiveness, Baker said: “If you’re doing any combat operations, guess who’s always going to be there? Our tankers. ... A ROBE system on our tankers ... will provide that over-the-horizon capability we need.”
The ROBE system will boost signals to and from every friendly force in the theater — Joint STARS, AWACS, F-16s, F-22s, even aircraft carriers — without having to use a satellite.
“Whenever I see an airplane without antennas, I think of it as wasted real estate,” said Air Force Secretary John Roche. “If you look at a tanker, there’s a lot of room for antennas.”
Placing a communications pallet onboard the KC-135 let communicators create an “Intranet-in-place.”
“From this platform, information from the combined air operations center could be sent to the tanker, then passed on to an F-15 without overloading the bandwidth of satellites,” Roche said in an Air Force Press Service news release.
The Air Force plans to install the communications pallets and special antennas aboard 40 KC-135s. “Think of ... a virtual antenna that’s 10 miles wide,” Roche said. “That’s absolutely do-able.”
Kadena Air Base on Okinawa houses the 909th Aerial Refueling Squadron, the Western Pacific’s only Air Force tanker squadron. Kadena spokesman Chip Steitz said no immediate plans call for installing ROBE pallets on tankers there.
“Using an aerial refueling aircraft to perform this sort of mission does prove that you can teach an old dog new tricks,” said Patrick Garrett, a military analyst at Global Security.org. “It could prove to be extremely important in the military’s effort to enhance its current command, control, communication and intelligence capabilities.”
He said ROBE — which could swell the number of ways to get crucial, time-sensitive information to troops — has an added benefit: It “cuts back on congestion and alleviates some of the bandwidth issues that can plague forces during combat.”