America's Stealth F-22s and F-35s Can’t Talk. A Drone Might Help.

David Axe

The U.S. Air Force has a problem. Its two stealth-fighter types, the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, can’t exchange data between them. Both fighters feature their own, unique data-link for secure information-sharing.

In other words, in their stealthiest mode F-22s can swap info only with other F-22s. F-35s can swap info only with other F-35s -- although, to be fair, the F-35 also can connect with the less-secure Link-16 network.

That could change. The Air Force is considering adding both the F-22’s line-of-sight Intra-Flight Data Link and the F-35’s Multifunction Advanced Data Link, which also is a line-of-sight system, to the XQ-58 wingman drone that the service is developing.

An operational version of the XQ-58 could fly in a mixed formation of F-22s and F-35s, functioning as a data gateway between the two types. The Air Force calls the concept “GatewayOne.” It plans to test the idea in December 2019.

“The Air Force wants the December tests to be a proof of concept showing that it can do this job,” Joseph Trevithick reported at The War Zone.

For this phase of experiments, the service plans to install the system on a test stand on the ground and have Raptors and Joint Strike Fighters flying above try to send information through it successfully.

If GatewayOne works in that limited environment, the Air Force wants to then install it on an XQ-58A and test the system in the air sometime in April 2020. The service is working with Kratos to develop Valkyrie as a low-cost, stealthy platform that can work together tethered together with manned platforms in the "loyal wingman" role, as well as by itself or in networked swarms.

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