Connected fighter jet, the cornerstone of collaborative air combat
Cruising at Mach 1.2 over hostile territory, flight lieutenant Johan is returning from a reconnaissance mission at the controls of the lead aircraft. He's about to land his latest-generation fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier, just like Grégoire, who is flying another fighter a few hundred metres behind him in combat formation.
The year is 2026 and they're part of an international coalition fighting the terrorist threat. It’s Johan's first live overseas mission with the new aircraft, and he feels somewhat relieved that everything has gone to plan.
The newest versions of this plane were only delivered a year ago. Despite the many training flights he’s done, Johan’s as impressed as ever with the aircraft's strike capabilities, its discretion and above all its connectivity.
That's because the latest standard of these fighter jets features the NEXEN communications server developed by Thales. The size of a shoebox, it’s packed with the latest technologies and has the potential to become a game-changer in terms of air combat communications.
NEXEN ties together all the available satcom and radio systems, keeping Johan in permanent contact with:
• Coalition and national command centres
• The other units engaged in the theatre (aircraft, naval forces, ground troops, etc.)
The two pilots suddenly receive an order to divert to a hostile target approximately 100 kilometres to the north. They bank 90 degrees and head off. Grégoire’s aircraft doesn’t have a satcom link, but using the service provided by the lead aircraft he can communicate directly with the command centres because NEXEN extends the connectivity of all the aircraft assigned to that particular operation.
The national command centre gives the pilots details of their mission: a SIGINT aircraft has intercepted a satellite radio call on a frequency used by terrorists. A UAV is doing a reconnaissance sweep of the area in an attempt to get a visual on the target, which may need to be neutralised.
Managing the mission, flying the plane and communicating all at once
A screen on Johan's instrument panel displays all the units and all the connections offered by NEXEN. One by one, the assets engaged in the new mission appear on the screen, forming a community of interest (COI) specific to this mission. The system is so intuitive that Johan can manage his communications, fly the aircraft and manage the mission all at the same time.
A new player appears on the connectivity screen. It’s a tanker plane, which has been brought in to refuel the fighters. Johan uses the chat function to contact the tanker crew and finalise last-minute details. Twenty minutes later or so, both fighters have filled up and can continue their mission.
As they advance, new elements are added to the COI on Johan’s screen. The SIGINT plane appears first, then the reconnaissance UAV, followed by the special forces unit on the ground.
Using a satellite link, Johan contacts the UAV pilot thousands of kilometres away, who gives him the details on the target. It’s a white pickup truck with four armed individuals and a machine gun mounted on the back.
First core element of the future combat aircraft
The national command centre briefs Johan with further intelligence about the mission objective. A second call by the potential target has identified one of the parties as a key terrorist leader. The troops on the ground have been ordered to capture him — alive, if possible — and the fighter jets are ready to provide support if things go awry.
Special forces on the ground assess the situation and launch an assault. With the element of surprise on their side, they take the hostile combatants prisoner. The roar of the two fighters as they pass overhead sounds like a shout of victory. The operation has been a success.
The mission didn’t require the fighters to take any offensive action, but it showed how connectivity offers a decisive advantage over the adversary. Right to the end, the pilots were able to monitor the evolving situation in real time and make the right decisions.
From initial concept in 2013 to integration on latest-generation fighter aircraft, NEXEN is designed to offer an unrivalled level of performance and security. Thales is also working to make it interoperable with aircraft, surface vessels, vehicles and dismounted infantry units from other countries.
While always able to operate alone, more and more countries are involved in military operations by coalition forces. As combat becomes ever more collaborative, connectivity is the backbone that pulls it all together, and the NEXEN communications server, as the first core element of the collaborative air combat of the future, meets the demanding requirements of these new forms of intervention.
With the NEXEN communications server, Thales has achieved a breakthrough in that the system is both highly open and highly secure. Advanced cybersecurity measures protect it from virus attacks and intrusions, and it's housed in a reinforced metal case to keep it safe from electromagnetic attacks. Inside, sensitive data is encrypted in a digital safe, and if anyone tries to force it open, it self-destructs. This means that if a communications server fell into the wrong hands, adversaries wouldn’t be able to use the content or try to understand how it works. These ultra-high security standards will soon be officially certified by ANSSI, France’s national agency for information system security.