The U.S. Air Force Could Transform Old Tankers Into New Command-and-Control Planes

David Axe

The U.S. Air Force has a problem. The world’s leading air arm wants to reshape its force structure for a possible high-tech war with Russia or China.

That means replacing many of the big, lumbering surveillance and command-and-control aircraft that the service relies on to direct forces during combat, but which also are increasingly vulnerable to enemy missiles.

But replace them with what?

Senior Air Force leaders have an idea. They proposed pairing the flying branch’s cutting-edge Advanced Battle Management System software with its huge fleet of aerial tankers, some of which are no less than 60 years old.

“We have to build a network force that supports then the ABMS architecture, that supports and is an element of overall [joint-service command and control],” Lt. Gen. Jon Thomas, the deputy commander of Air Mobility Command, told C4ISRNet reporter Valerie Insinna. “On a theater level, air mobility can significantly contribute to that, and I would say it starts with the tanker.”

The Advanced Battle Management System, which still is under development, is a complex suite of software that in theory would connect aircraft and other forces from across the U.S. military. Data would flow from satellites, drones and manned planes into and across the network, showing up as targeting icons on the cockpit displays in fighters, bombers and drone-control stations.

ABMS, if it works, first would replace the Air Force’s fleet of slightly more than a dozen E-8C radar-surveillance planes. The E-8s, which are based on unmodernized and underpowered Boeing 707 airframes, fly big, slow loops over a battlefield, spotting targets with their underslung radars and passing the data via radio link to other forces.

But the E-8s with their poor performance and huge signature on enemy sensor screens are among the most vulnerable aircraft in the Air Force inventory. The flying branch practically has begged Congress to let it retire the E-8s, but Congress has delayed retirement pending meaningful progress on ABMS.

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