New IRST Datalink Further Connects Pilots Across the Battlespace

New IRST Datalink Further Connects Pilots Across the Battlespace
June 08, 2021

Infrared Search and Track (IRST) systems provide precise angle measurements of threats in highly contested air-to-air environments. However, due to their passive nature, IRST systems have relied on other onboard aircraft systems or pilot actions to determine range – until now.

Pilots using Lockheed Martin’s Legion Pod®, which has IRST21® technology, will now have a dedicated datalink available for pod-to-pod communication that establishes near instantaneous range to targets.

Think of this datalink capability as a rapid depth perception feature, just like your own eyes. Each eye perceives an object differently because they are offset from each other. Your brain correlates those two images to make one 3-D view.

While aircraft have their own onboard datalinks, these legacy systems are often bandwidth-limited (a narrow information pipeline). The data pushed across these onboard datalinks first go through a mission computer that processes and prioritizes information from multiple subsystems. With a secure, wideband datalink incorporated directly into Legion Pod, immediate connectivity between IRST21 systems is enabled. The pod’s dedicated computer then resolves ranges of many more targets without consuming aircraft resources.

The datalink in Legion Pod helps reduce the workload for our pilots so they can focus on the tracks that matter most, keeping them safe for a successful mission,” said Kenen Nelson, fixed wing sensors program director at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. “Additionally, this datalink capability further reduces the timeline for our pilots to engage a weapon, if needed, without having to sacrifice precious time.”

Lockheed Martin is developing the datalink capability in collaboration with the U.S. Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves Test Center (AATC). Lockheed Martin used internal funding to develop and integrate the capability into Legion Pod, leveraging field-proven components and algorithms. AATC provided test aircraft, inputs on implementation and feedback on performance. The capstone event occurred this May when Lockheed Martin and AATC demonstrated the pod-to-pod datalink at the Northern Edge large force exercise in Alaska.

The AATC aircrew flying with the IRST datalink at Northern Edge stated that this is the beginning development of a capability that will eventually allow the joint force long-range targeting in a contested, degraded and operationally limited environment.

Presently, the pod-to-pod datalink uses an IP-based waveform, Tactical Targeting Network Technology (TTNT), which supports secure, mobile ad hoc networking for today’s warfighter. By integrating a waveform developed specifically for military applications and fielded in other military branches, the datalink potentially enables pilots to share and consume IRST tracks across platforms and services in support of Joint All-Domain Operations.

In the future, other radios and waveforms could be integrated as new use cases and concepts emerge.  Taking this capability to the next level might include a software-defined radio that supports multiple waveforms or a fifth-to-fourth generation gateway payload. This pod-to-pod or pod-to-aircraft communication could also support a manned-unmanned aircraft teaming mission. Overall, the addition of a dedicated datalink demonstrates Legion Pod’s intentional design to accommodate multiple sensors and payloads without affecting aircraft operational flight programs.

Lockheed Martin will continue to work with the armed services to validate and refine the technology. The next steps in this process include flight testing with F-16s. This testing will ensure transportability of the datalink capability across aircraft platforms and demonstrate interoperability.

*Image diagram shows an example of the datalink capability within Legion Pod. Not a tactical representation