In this Q&A with Collins Aerospace’s Associate Director of Strategic and Advanced Programs, Military Avionics and Helicopters Chris “Fester” Larson, we discuss how a digital backbone for next-generation platforms can contribute to air dominance in a peer conflict.
Breaking Defense: What are the issues operators will likely face in future conflicts from the point of view of dominance against near-peer adversaries, especially as they relate to next-generation digital capabilities for the Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance aircraft and the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program?
Collins Aerospace’s Associate Director of Strategic and Advanced Programs, Military Avionics and Helicopters Chris “Fester” Larson.
Larson: It boils down to information dominance. Can you acquire the information needed for those at the tactical edge — the mission commander and the larger teams that support him or her in the fight — and get it to them in a way that they can act upon and provide the necessary battlefield effects?
That’s particularly true in a theater where you have tyranny of distance, extended flight times, and a significant threat in every domain.
Breaking Defense: We’re talking about the need for sixth-generation capabilities, but near-peers don’t seem to be developing anything comparable to the Army’s FVL program, for example. So, I’m wondering, in what ways are our fifth-generation capabilities not good enough?
Larson: The answer is in mass. Mass has a quality all its own. Some of the US DOD’s near-peer adversaries have the ability to force project with integrated air defenses over vast distances and en-masse. That makes it more challenging for us to get into the fight and maintain the fight long enough to attain a decision advantage.
Fifth-gen platforms have some great capabilities, but we recognize from the concept of mass that we need to have sixth-gen capabilities that will allow us to overcome some of our adversary’s emerging capabilities and large numbers. In many cases we can’t afford to go head-to-head from a one-v-one perspective. We must have sixth-gen discriminators that allow us to go one-v-five, one-v-ten, etc.
I don’t necessarily mean that to be exclusive to the traditional air-to-air fight realm. We have to have enablers that allow us to execute the battlefield effects we need. Our fifth-gen capabilities certainly are complementary to that. Sixth gen is where we start to see some discriminators and where we can purpose-build those aircraft to meet modern warfighting requirements. Some of these enabling, next-generation capabilities include things like enhanced sensors, artificial intelligence, networked situational awareness, increased range or longer-range weapons, and crewed/uncrewed aircraft teaming.
Breaking Defense: One of those critical platform and capability enablers will be separation and isolation between air vehicle systems and mission systems in order to rapidly field new mission capabilities. Explain the value of that?
Larson: Collins has a safety critical multicore processing capability that runs on the air-vehicle side that is robust, follows proven FAA airworthiness standards, and truly brings the power of multicore into the scenario. You can now use it in ways that you’ve never been able to before. That’s because we can run multiple cores at different Design Assurance Level (DAL) certification levels all on the same processor. That addresses the SWaP requirements needed to address sixth-gen systems that have a greater need for processing. This technology lets you do that in a much more flexible and robust fashion where you can truly unlock the power of multicore processing.
Platform-tailorable multicore processing is complemented by a very high bandwidth and robust underlying networking topology designed from the ground up to enable change and lower the impact to airworthiness when new mission capabilities are added. In other words, it was specifically designed to address the issue of certification and integration time to field. Our approach, built upon the Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN) standard, allows us to do that in a very elegant way. We think this is a strong approach because the TSN networking standard is 100% compatible with existing commercial ethernet and has been adopted across commercial industry in many different areas like automotive, energy and industrial manufacturing. That means you have a widely adopted open standard and you’re going to get great innovation ideas from them that benefit the aerospace industry.
TSN allows you to address some elements that will be challenging in the future fight, such as the need to have data hooks in place that make it possible to have multiple levels of security and cross-domain solutions internal to the underlying network topology. That lets you run things at the Top Secret or Special Access Program levels and still have a very robust connection to the outside world, including our coalition and joint partners.
Collins Aerospace also has a very strategic viewpoint of how we do video controller processing. It is a human-machine interface that determines how I as the pilot or air-crew member interact with the systems in a seamless way. So, it doesn’t matter whether I’m dealing with something that’s on the safety critical side of the house or on the mission side, whether that be a sensor or a weapons effect. Our video control and processing architecture is built to allow rapid mission capability integration, yet still have very robust interaction with the air vehicle system. Because of this, you don’t end up in a scenario where it takes a year to update something because it’s part of, or interacts with, the safety critical side of the weapon system.
The final piece is that we couple all of that with a civil-certified flight management system (FMS) with robust military missionization capabilities. Our sixth-gen capabilities require the ability to operate and deploy worldwide. Collins’ FMS is a certified FACE™ conformant software product that provides seamless global interoperability between civil and military airspace that is easily customized to the unique mission requirements of the host aircraft through open architecture interfaces.
Now when I’m ready to go feet wet, fight’s on and I’m hitting that battlespace arena where I’m no longer in the jurisdiction of FAA air traffic controllers or their ICAO equivalents in the international airspace but still need to conduct the mission, we have a way for that system to easily transition into the operational role to allow us to employ those mission effects that we want.
Altogether these solutions become very powerful. They’re also designed to be open and modular so that if an OEM has their own network capability, we can drop in the video networking and processing piece, so they complement each other and play nicely together.
Collins Aerospace’s concept of a Mosarc cockpit for 6th-generation fighters.
Breaking Defense: Tie this all into the Collins Aerospace Mosarc Digital Backbone solutions. How does Mosarc relate to the DOD’s Modular Open Systems Approach (MOSA)?
Larson: When you look at the core language that was in the National Defense Authorization Act, they describe the Modular Open Systems Approach from a very high level. That means that each service in most cases is adopting their own approach to that.
For instance, OMS UCI (Open Mission Systems Universal Command and Control Interface) is something that the Air Force often likes to use, not exclusively, but often does. Other open system approach standards you’ll see include FACE™ (Future Airborne Capability Environment), HOST (Hardware Open Systems Technologies), and SOSA (Sensor Open Systems Architecture), just to name a few. No service has adopted these standards exclusively and in the same way.
The great thing about Collins’ Mosarc is that it has the capability to flex to each service’s requirements in a meaningful way, without having to start from ground zero.
That lets us service the sixth-gen fighter, Future Vertical Lift, and the KC-X next-gen aerial refueling tanker, to name a few. Mosarc can flexibly adapt to a range of distinct service and platform open-architecture approaches and not be locked down or tied to a specific end platform.
We know that customers are not going to approach Collins for everything. That means we want to make sure that, in the areas where we have discriminators, our Mosarc solutions allow customers to take advantage of those capabilities for brand new sixth-gen aircraft builds, as well as legacy airframes.
Here’s an example of our Mosarc networking capability. Two of our primary components in creating a more open and digital networking architecture are our Mosarc SNAP (smart networking access point) and ADAPT, which is the brother to SNAP with an adaptive I/O architecture that brings in some connective tissue for legacy capabilities. Our SNAP product line is designed for new aircraft builds like sixth gen aircraft, whereas ADAPT is designed to bridge legacy network capabilities with our newest TSN capabilities. Specifically, if you have a legacy or enduring fleet capability, you can use our Mosarc ADAPT architecture and its additional connective capabilities to service and accommodate the legacy platform, yet still have the benefit of the more modern TSN capabilities on an existing platform.
Collins Aerospace is developing flexible capabilities so we can work with each military branch to improve upon both new-build and legacy systems so that they are sustainable into the future. The Mosarc family of capabilities is purpose-designed to be able to do just that.