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US Air Force seeks commercial satcom for KC-135 fleet

A USAF Boeing KC-135R refuels a flight of F-15C Eagles. (US Air Force)

The US Air Force (USAF) is seeking commercial satellite communications (satcom) options for its fleet of KC-135 aerial refuellers, with plans to allow these aircraft global, real-time access to the Pentagon's classified and unclassified networks.

USAF officials issued an initial list of strategic requirements to industry for the KC-135 Commercial Satellite Communication Access to Non-Secure Internet Protocol Router (NIPR) and Secure Internet Protocol Router (SIPR) Networks (CANS) programme on 12 March. While programme officials at Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) are keeping details of the new CANS requirements under wraps, service leaders plan to hold an inaugural industry day for defence, satcom, and information technology companies looking to participate in the CANS programme, according to a 12 March solicitation.

The impetus for the CANS programme is to drive NIPR and SIPR connectivity to the wing and squadron level within AFMC, to “increase aircraft situational awareness communication, improve mission planning, … [and] to send flight or mission changes” to the onboard command-and-control (C2) node in near real-time, the 12 March solicitation stated.

“The need for seamless and resilient communications and adaptable data pathways out to the tactical edge is critical,” programme officials wrote, noting the increased communications pathways provided to the KC-135 fleet via the CANS programme will “achieve the resiliency and adaptability necessary to remain relevant across the spectrum of competition”.

The CANS will feature a “real-time Ku-band commercial satcom antenna to allow beyond-line-of-sight fast internet capability” for in-flight, IP-based data transport to prescribed endpoints based on mission requirements, the solicitation stated. The system will operate on distinct, federated mission systems that ensure separation and security of IP stacks for NIPR and SIPR communications accessed through commercial satcom networks, it added.

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