Waiting for the E-7 WEDGETAIL to come in line to replace the E-3 AWACS, the USAF took a C-17 GLOBEMASTER from the 62nd Airlift Wing on a new mission by using the strategic transport jet as a mobile command-and-control station for coordinating simulated air and ground operations at Nellis Air Force Base, in Nevada, during Exercise Black Flag 23-1.
The air forces of many countries rely on multiple platforms and systems, both in the air and on the ground, to form a theater/campaign air control system. This includes ground-based stations such as the Control and Reporting Centers (CRC) and the Air Support Operations Centers, alongside the airborne ones, such as the E-3, E-7, and E-8 JSTARS. The test conducted by the USAF is a perfect demonstration of the resiliency of their Command and Control (C2), providing field commanders with more options for controlling the battlespace.
This is an increasingly significant capability considering that all the air forces across the globe have their fleet and systems retiring for aging or under the microscope for their increased vulnerability in the future, potential, battlefield. As reported by Air Force Maj. Paden Allen, Commander of the C2 division of the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, the funny thing is that for this experiment, they took off-the-shelf equipment, things that the government either already has, or could easily go get today, pieced it all together, and with a bit of computer science, they reached more than they had previously: lighter, leaner and faster. The lighter footprint was evident during the Black Flag exercise, where all the equipment necessary for C2 took up just two jump seats in a C-17 or the trunk of a light vehicle.
For integrating the required equipment onto the C-17, and to transform it into a battle management platform, the USAF coordinated the experiment between maintainers from the 62nd Airlift Wing and a Joint Communication Support element from U.S. Transportation Command. This was the first time that a C-17 was being used as a C2 platform, though the Air Force has a history of using other no-specific aircraft, such as the C-130, in the C2 role. For example, during the Vietnam War, the C2 branch used C-130s as “hasty” Airborne Battle Command and Control Centers platforms, and EC-130Es carried that mission set into the early 2000s.