Back in the 1990s the U.S. Air Force planned to have a new generation of fighters (the F-22 and F-35) in service by now, replacing the 1970s era F-15s and F-16s. The new fighters would have new communications systems that were more difficult to detect and were high-capacity digital. These plans have not worked out as hoped. The F-22 and F-35 did become reality, along with their new comm systems. But the F-22 was too expensive for mass production (less than 200 were built) and the F-35 was delayed and was also too expensive to quickly replace the F-16s. In the meantime the air force developed digital comm systems (Link 16) for the older aircraft that were not compatible with the new systems used in the F-22 and F-35. So the air force is hustling to develop an additional comm system called MAPS (Multi-Domain Adaptable Processing System) that will enable the older Link 16 equipped systems to quickly and automatically exchange data with the newer but incompatible systems used by the F-22 and F-35. Since MAPS will take years (until the end of the decade or longer) to get into service the air force is rushing an interim datalink system that will be ready to go by 2015.
This is all rather urgent as until datalinks like this or MAPS are available the F-22s and F-35s can only communicate digitally with each other. The newer aircraft still can use radio with older aircraft but not instantly exchange digital data (pictures, video and other targeting information. This sort of data exchange it taken for granted by Internet users and the military considers it essential for success in 21st century warfare.
All this is aerial digital capability is in support of the next big thing in warfare; fusion. Since the 1990s the American military has been seeking ways to make fusionpractical in combat. Put simply, it's all about taking real-time vidcam, radar and other sensor data (sensor fusion) and other information about the battlefield situation (all sorts of databases and reports), and combining it to provide commanders, or fighter pilots, with a better understanding of the current operation. Basically, this is nothing new. Commanders have always employed data fusion and information fusion. Three thousand years ago a commander created a battle situation (where armies agreed to, or were forced to, stop moving around and form up for a fight) by taking information from scouts, spies in enemy territory and diplomats, and coming up with ways to move his army, and communicate with the enemy force, and others in the area, to convince the enemy to stop and fight. This was not easy and those generals who could regularly pull it off came to be famous. The battle itself consisted of the commander, on a horse or in a chariot, and usually on a high piece of ground, looking at his force and the enemies. The commander had aides doing the same thing, and telling the boss anything they saw. Messengers brought information from subordinates. This was all more data fusion, just on a different scale. The commander took in all this, and ordered his contingents to advance, or re-position themselves. Data fusion and information fusion were taken for granted by the ancients but it was long done in the heads of competent and talented commanders. New technology has made data fusion available to a lot more people and on the battlefield victory will go to the side with the best and fastest fusion.
This is not a new development. Starting in the 19th century and especially throughout the 20th century commanders had access to more and more information. A century ago, it became possible to get aerial photographs. Radio and telephone allowed information to move a lot faster, from a lot farther away. Battles were fought over a much larger area. It was no longer practical to sit on a horse and view the battlefield.
Now, early in the 21st century, there are a lot more sensors (vidcams on aircraft and UAVs, plus radars and electronic eavesdropping). Most importantly, there are cheap, powerful and plentiful computers. Finally, there are new techniques for quickly analyzing this flood of data (starting with Operations Research, invented in the 1930s and used successfully during World War II and since). American commanders are developing new ways to examine the "battle space" and quickly react to new opportunities before the enemy can.
Since September 11, 2001 the U.S. Department of Defense has been trying to develop equipment that would allow aircraft (including UAVs) of all three services to be able to communicate digitally (as in a battlefield Internet). Getting "battlefield broadband" to work has been a work in progress, just as it has been in the commercial sector (where progress has also been slow but steady.)
The military has used a lot of commercial tech and had tried to keep up. For example, in 2005 a test had an army UH-60A helicopter, a navy F-18 and an air force F-15E, sitting on the ground, sending and receiving digital data. A ground station was also tied into the network. The successful test demonstrated that all three services had successfully modified their communications gear to handle the same (USAF Link 16) data. This was followed by tests with the aircraft in the air, including an army UAV and an AH-64 helicopter gunship, followed by tests with aircraft firing weapons, using target data from another aircraft, or someone on the ground. By the end of the decade, the Department of Defense wanted to have the capability for troops on the ground, to share targeting data (including live video), with aircraft, and vice versa. Sort of battlefield video conferencing, with weapons. Because of the urgency (and extra cash) of a wartime situation the Department of Defense made that deadline. Although the money is getting right again, the troops have had a taste and want it all. Hardware and software costs have come down so fusion moves forward.
Since the 2005 test the effort has been in getting it working on the battlefield. This meant making the system reliable enough to withstand the rigors of combat situations. If the system isn't reliable enough, the troops won't use it. Simple as that. During World War II, the military first encountered high-tech gear that was simply ignored by the troops, because the stuff did not work, or work well enough to depend on in a life and death situation. Those attitudes never go away and developers know that if their gear is not robust enough it will be rejected (unofficially, of course) by the troops.
The Link 16 based battlefield Internet system allows data fusion with commanders and intelligence analysts seeing sensor data (basically high resolution video) from many aircraft (fighters, gunships, helicopters and UAVs) over a battlefield, and use all the information to best select targets and assign air and ground forces to attack most effectively. Before fusion all the aircraft with high-res eyes on the battlefield required lots of radio chatter to share their data. This approach is slow, and subject to errors.
The data fusion can include date from other sensors. These include those collecting electronic transmissions (from radios, cell phones or even automobiles) and photo-reconnaissance pods (which use high rez, like 30 megapixel and up, digital cameras to take still pictures and immediately transmit them).
In Iraq, the U.S. Army developed new tools for constantly watching the battle zone, electronically noting minor differences, and combining this with other data on the enemy, and using math and fast computers to accurately predict who the enemy probably was, what they were capable of doing, and when they were likely to do it. This new weapon played a major role in breaking the back of the Iraqi terrorist organizations in 2007 and saving many American and Iraqi lives (by knowing where roadside bombs were, and the enemy fighters as well.) These techniques were then applied in Afghanistan.
A new generation of American commanders are also learning, on the battlefield, how powerful information fusion is as a weapon, or at least as a tool for determining where to point the weapons. This is just the beginning of high speed, multi-sensor information fusion on the battlefield, and the tool will only grow in power and effectiveness.