Master Chart Showing US Military Aircraft And Their Data-Links Includes RQ-170 Sentinel

The U.S. military rightly understands that the rapid transfer of information across the battlefield can give American forces a decided edge against its opponents. Over the years, the different services have adopted a variety of manned and unmanned aircraft with increasingly advanced communications gear and data-links, but haven’t always upgraded older types, creating a complex web of different systems that often can’t “talk” to each other directly. Now we at The War Zone have discovered a single master diagram that offers an amazingly granular picture of how various U.S. military combat and combat support aircraft, including the secretive RQ-170 Sentinel drone, can or can’t communicate.

U.S. Air Force Major Michael Smith included the chart, titled “Integrated Airborne/Ground Net Enabled Warfare, Version 5.2” and dated May 2017, in a briefing he presented at the National Defense Industry Association’s Precision Strike Annual Review on March 20, 2018. Smith is the Chief of Weapons and Tactics for the 720th Special Tactics Group, which is part of Air Force Special Operations Command and oversees the bulk of the special tactics airmen assigned to that command.  

These individuals include Combat Controllers, Joint Tactical Air Controllers, and others, who variously coordinate air strikes and air drops, manage airfield operations and communications at austere locations, and often assist with mission planning, among various other specialized duties. It’s no surprise special tactics personnel have to have a good working understanding of the communications and data sharing capabilities of various aircraft. 

Prominently at the top of the chart are depictions of what aircraft have one of three common data links, Link 16, Situational Awareness Data Link (SADL), and Variable Message Format (VMF). On U.S. military aircraft, Link 16 eclipses the use of both SADL and VMF and the diagram notes that there are plans to add Link 16 capability to more than a dozen in-service types, such as the Marine Corps AH-1Z gunship helicopters and MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors and the entire U.S. Army special operations helicopter fleet, between the 2017 and 2020 fiscal years.

The chart US Air Force Major Smith included in his March 2018 briefing, which has a number of immediately obvious errors, such as the “KC-135J” and “MQ-1C Predator,” but still has a wealth of other information., USAF

Some aircraft are equipped with both Link 16 and SADL, though. The U.S. Air Force’s KC-135 aerial tankers, which need to be able to communicate with a variety of different types of aircraft, have both capabilities. After they receive their updates, the Army’s specialized AH-6 and MH-6 Little Birds, MH-60 Black Hawks, and MH-47 Chinooks will all have a dual capability, as will did the older Beechcraft King Air Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (MARSS) spy planes. The Army has replaced the latter type with the MC-12S Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS), though U.S. Special Operations Command continues to operate a number of the MARSS aircraft.

There are plans to add Link 16 to the AC-130W Stinger II gunships and MC-130J Commando II special operations transports, though the AC-130J Ghostriders already have this functionality, as well as a VMF link, according to the chart. Though not featured here, it’s worth noting that the pair of heavily modified OV-10G+ Bronco light attack aircraft that U.S. Speical Operations Command evaluated in Iraq in 2015 had Link 16, SADL, and VMF, too. The only aircraft with only Link 16 and VMF are various foreign types, such as the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon, which American special operations airmen might come into contact with during coalition operations.

According to the chart, AC-130J Ghostrider gunships, such as the one seen here, have Link 16, SADL, and VMF data links., USAF

Of particular interest is the inclusion of the top secret RQ-170, which the U.S. military has released very little information about since it officially acknowledged its existence in 2009. According to this chart, it is one of the few aircraft that carries Link 16 and SADL, though it’s not entirely clear why it would need both systems. 

We do know that the Air Force has employed Sentinels for persistent surveillance in denied areas and in an overwatch role supporting forces on the ground, and has considered using them for bomb damage assessment in high-risk scenarios. Having both systems could give them added flexibility to communicate with other aircraft and ground-based elements.

But neither of these data links are stealthy in nature, but the RQ-170 could use them passively, sucking up their transmissions and sending that information around the world via its low-probability of intercept (LPI) microwave SATCOM communications systems. When operating over lower threat territory, it could use Link 16 and SADL actively for two-way data exchanges. And clearly, the Sentinel possesses other classified communications capabilities that are not featured on this chart. 

If the aircraft’s had both of those data links installed since its official disclosure, the security of those systems might have been compromised following the crash of a Sentinel in Iran 2011. In addition to attempting to reverse engineer the design, the Iranians allowed their foreign partners, namely the Russians and the Chinese, to closely examine the largely intact aircraft.

An RQ-170 Sentinel., USAF via FOIA

It’s worth pointing out that the chart makes little mention of stealthy data links at all, only listing the F-35’s stealthy Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL) and the F-22’s unique Intra-Flight Data Link (IFDL) specifically. At the same time, the B-2 Spirit and the future B-21 Raider stealth bombers are simply listed as having Link 16 connectivity. The Air Force plans to integrate the F-35’s MADL onto the B-2 and the B-21 will get the same.

On top of that, we know that the F-35 has full Link 16 capability. Creative tactics could allow for it to be used even while operating in stealth mode by passing information over a MADL’s directional ‘daisy chain’ and then having the F-35 farthest from the leading-edge of combat rebroadcast that data in Link 16 waveform for other aircraft to exploit. 

Lockheed slide

The F-22 also has Link 16, but with receive-only capability. The F-15C’s ‘Talon HATE’ pod aims to connect the F-22 with Link 16 and the outside ‘tactical world’ at large. The chart, however, incorrectly says F-16s carry this system.

The Ku-band satcom section only mentions the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-1C Gray Eagle, and MQ-9 Reaper drones, despite many more aircraft, such as AC-130 gunships and MC-130 special operations transports, having this type of connectivity. The RQ-170 is also missing, but this is unsurprising as it is not publically known exactly what type of SATCOM system it uses. 

Lockheed Martin converted this U-2S Dragon Lady into a flying communications hub for the U.S. Air Force on an experimental basis., USAF

Strategic reconnaissance, communications, and command and control platforms, such as the U-2S Dragon Lady, RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, E-4B Nightwatch, E-6B Mercury, and VC-25A Air Force One aren’t on the chart, either, though this isn’t surprising as it is highly unlikely that a JTAC or combat controller would find themselves working with those types. That also explains the section on the right side dedicated to portable data links, such as Handheld Link 16 and even 4G LTE-enabled devices, that those same individuals would be carrying.

Also conspicuously absent are the E-11A manned and EQ-4B unmanned Battlefield Airborne Communication Node (BACN) aircraft. These powerful communications hubs serve as an important go-between for aircraft and ground units equipped with one data link and another otherwise incompatible type. They allow ground forces, planes, and helicopters with disparate data-links, like Link 16 and SADL, to share information, and they drastically extend the range and fidelity of those communications, especially over rough terrain.

But despite what it might leave out, this chart is still an extremely interesting and valuable resource. Let us know if you see something else notable that we skipped over in the comments below.

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