July 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 3 
Cover Story


C-17 prepares for airborne network-centric demo—and takes one step closer to fulfilling the future vision of military communications


Two U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster IIIs take to the sky.Imagine you're flying a large military airplane into a hostile environment. Precious lives and strategic cargo are aboard. Your mission and their survival may depend on a capability that doesn't exist yet: the ability to integrate critical information, in real time, across networks now incompatible.

Imagine a company with the innovation and capabilities to solve this problem. And imagine an aircraft able to show how it's done.

Now, stop imagining.

The company is Boeing. The aircraft is the C-17 Globemaster III, an advanced airlifter assembled in Long Beach, Calif.

And the way forward is the C-17's planned "Network-Centric Operations Flyable Demonstrator," scheduled to be shown to the U.S. Air Force this fall at Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., and McChord Air Force Base, Wash. The C-17 is acknowledged to be the leading platform to integrate new network-centric applications on cargo aircraft. Those applications are intended to help decision makers come to better, more informed choices more quickly and accurately.

"This is pretty cool and it's what the future looks like for us," said Maj. Chris Von Thaden, a U.S. Air Force C-17 pilot from McChord who participated in the project's Critical Design Review on June 15 in Long Beach. "This will allow me to solve my problem in five seconds, not five minutes. Right now, you don't find out what it's like in a threat zone until you get there."

Network-centric operations are clearly crucial to the customer. And they're big business, too. Very big. The market for technology and gear related to command, control, communications, computers and intelligence could be worth nearly $84 billion over the next 10 years, according to Forecast International, a defense research and consulting firm.

"Network-centric-that's where the world is going," said Boeing President and CEO Harry Stonecipher at a recent Air and Defense conference.

"And that's exactly where the C-17 is going," said Dave Bowman, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems vice president and C-17 program manager and the driving force behind the network-centric flyable demonstrator. "This project is all about understanding and anticipating our customer's needs. It's a significant step forward in advancing the technology and functionality of our product."

In late 2003, Bowman chartered a new Integrated Product Team to focus on mobility network-centric operations and emerging technologies. The idea was born of customer feedback, and from a desire to enhance the C-17's capabilities and value. The team, led by John Lyttle, an avionics engineering director, was designed to see if the C-17 could showcase the potential of network-centric capabilities using today's technologies.

"Our task is to demonstrate that Boeing has the greatest capability to bring this technology to market," Lyttle said. "We're developing the systems architecture, which integrates existing technologies that are currently separate and not integrated. Systems integration is the key."

Tuan Pham runs a test program for the C-17 network-centric flyable demonstratorSimply put, network-centric operations use technology that allows different military platforms, such as airplanes, ships and tanks, to share data and convert knowledge to plot their next moves on the battlefield, on the oceans and in the skies. The interoperability between networks and nodes-like the C-17-lets decision makers make better, more informed decisions, more quickly and accurately.

"This will allow pilots to get updated information and allow us to focus on flying the airplane," said an enthusiastically supportive Von Thaden, after receiving a technology demonstration in a C-17 engineering simulator. "I know what Boeing showed me will become a reality. It's just too good for our command to pass up. Real-time, secure communications is a big deal for the war fighter. Its time has come. It's time to do it."

But not quite yet. First, a Boeing team has work to do to integrate supplier hardware and software, then temporarily install it on an operational C-17 for the customer demonstration and evaluation this fall. It's true system integration, a Boeing core competency. The integration effort involves collaboration among IDS, Boeing Commercial Airplanes and several suppliers.

One of the technologies being integrated is the Electronic Flight Bag, which takes the place of paper documents that are currently in the flight crews' flight bag, carried into the cockpit for every flight. Jeppesen, a Boeing Commercial Airplanes subsidiary, produces the Electronic Flight Bag software, which is displayed on EFB hardware supplied by Astronautics Corp. The EFB brings the technological advances of computer information delivery and management to the airplane flight deck. Boeing certified the first fully integrated EFB for the 777 in October 2003.

The C-17 network-centric flyable demonstrator will include two EFB displays in the cockpit (this hardware is not currently on the C-17). During the demo, the EFB will deliver and manage mission-critical flight information through a graphical interface.

The C-17 flyable demonstrator will integrate the EFB with Combat Track II, a U.S. Army satellite communications system that can support more than 1,000 aircraft, and can track multiple mobile or stationary platforms. Track II is a GPS map-based system, developed by IDS' Space and Intelligence Systems in Chantilly, Va. It's currently hand-carried on C-17s as a stand-alone system-by the customer, after the aircraft is delivered.

In today's Track II world, a third person in the C-17's jump seat receives threat information-effectively, data about "where the bad guys are"-on a laptop computer and verbally communicates it to the flight crew. In tomorrow's Track II world, the flyable demonstrator will integrate this information and put it on displays directly in view of the pilots.

"Communications is one of our highest priorities. This is the way we need to go to get secure, robust graphical communication in front of the pilots," Von Thaden said. "The entire pilot community is enthusiastic about Electronic Flight Bag and Track II, separately. They'll really be interested to hear Boeing is integrating the two of them."

A third enabling technology to be integrated into the flyable demonstrator is the C-17's Advanced Wireless Open Data System. Using commercially available, off-the-shelf technology, this wireless system will route data to the EFB display units for real-time crew viewing.

In a C-17 engineering simulator, Mike Fahrney demonstrates the Electronic Flight Bag display to U.S. Air Force Maj. Chris Von Thaden."Individually, these systems are valuable and have outstanding functionality," said Tuan Pham, a Boeing IDS C-17 avionics engineer and technical lead on the project. "But the real value is in integrating them. The sum of the parts is far greater than the whole."

Pham's job is to provide system design, integration and testing of the parts. Acquiring the parts is the responsibility of Mark DeVoss' supplier and materials management organization. "We are truly bringing together the best of Boeing and the best of industry," DeVoss said. "We want to begin the acquisition process next year."

Collaboration with the supply base will be key in moving the network-centric capability from a demonstration mode to a production environment. In order to field a fully certified system in time to support anticipated customer needs, procurement planning of supply base capabilities needs to start now.

"We are currently conducting market surveys of supplier offerings related to NCO," DeVoss said.

Development of this network-centric system will allow the C-17 eventually to become part of an integrated network with all the other platforms in what's known as the "Infosphere," which includes fighters, bombers, ground crews, ships-and eventually, the war fighter on the ground. This integrated network does not exist. Yet.

Boeing wants to be able to offer this new capability for C-17s in time for the next multi-year procurement contract on aircraft beginning with the U.S. Air Force's 181st C-17, Bowman said. Boeing is currently under contract to design, build and deliver 180 C-17s; 120 are currently in the U.S. Air Force fleet.

In mobility studies, the Air Force has said it needs "at least" 222 C-17s. Recent reports have indicated it may require as many as 302 C-17s. That's a huge market for this capability, Bowman said. Boeing will work closely with the customer to refine and improve the system design and, Bowman hopes, deploy it in 2008.

"This capability has enormous potential to enhance the C-17's effectiveness for the war fighter," Bowman said. "We envision a future where all production C-17s are delivered with network-centric capability, and all existing aircraft are retrofitted with it. But that'll be up to our customer. We're simply demonstrating the beginnings of the art of the possible."

Bowman sees a world where more than just the C-17 fleet is network-connected. The flyable demonstrator is proving a technology and capability that could benefit more than 500 Boeing Airlift and Tanker aircraft, including 767 Tankers, KC-10s, C-32s and C-40s-as well as other Boeing military platforms like the B-52, 737 Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft, V-22 Osprey and helicopters such as the CH-47 Chinook and AH-64 Apache.

That list represents a cadre of pilots who can't wait to get their hands on this new capability. So, who will be the lucky U.S. Air Force pilot in the cockpit of the first network-centric C-17 flight this fall?

"I'd like to be the guy who flies the demo," said a wishful Maj. Von Thaden, hoping his senior officers will take note. "I think by being here in Long Beach, I just went to the top of the sign-up list."



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