F-35A Royal Netherlands Air Force
Copyright: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander Cook

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter demonstrates enhanced interoperability with initial Coalition Mission Data (CMDx) flight tests

F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter pilots from the U.S. and The Netherlands took to the air here Aug. 13-14 to demonstrate a new level of interoperability aimed at improving future combat data sharing among the U.S. Services, F-35 program international Cooperative Partners and Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customers.

Commonly referred to as CMDx, coalition mission data is a concept that provides all operating participants with an equivalent source of data that ensures a common operating picture across a large multi-national force of F-35s. Essentially, CMDx will provide coalition air component commanders the assurance that all assets are seeing the same thing at the same time.

This concept also affords commanders the ability to operate a mixture of F-35s regardless of variant or nationality. Additionally, because CMDx operates from the same data source, situational awareness and combat identification are significantly improved.

We need to think differently across the F-35 Enterprise about how we provide high-quality mission data to our coalition partners so that we can optimize the common operating picture they demand, while reducing the costs associated with producing unique mission data sets for an expanding customer base,” said F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) Executive Officer, Lt. Gen. Eric Fick. “The demonstration is paving the way for a new level of combat effectiveness and affordability in the reprogramming arena.

Operational test pilots from the F-35 Joint Operational Test Team (JOTT) at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., worked alongside operational pilots at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., to demonstrate the feasibility and effectiveness of the new concept over a China Lake test range. The pilots, supported by a host of mission planners and engineers from across the F-35 enterprise, planned and executed a series of flights using two U.S. and two Dutch F-35s operating with the same mission data.

The flight test evaluations were designed to show that each pilot could receive the same common operating picture both on and off board. Although final analysis is still being conducted, initial feedback from the flight tests indicates the new concept was a success.

Following final review and full analysis of the flight test data, the F-35 JPO’s Combat Data Systems (CDS) Program Management Office (PMO) will continue working to provide U.S. and foreign F-35 warfighters with the option of using CMDx to enhance coalition operations. The CDS PMO is responsible for delivering F-35 reprogramming and mission planning capability to F-35 warfighters worldwide.

The team is looking not only to enhance interoperability with the new concept, but also to reduce the cost of generating country-specific files in support of the aircraft’s increasing customer demand with nations needing mission data files to support multiple areas of responsibility (AORs), and a growing number of F-35 configurations.

The F-35 Lightning II is a 5th generation fighter known for its advanced sensor suite that is highly integrated via ‘fusion’ capabilities, which provide pilots with high confidence situational awareness and combat identification, in addition to the common operating picture. Key to optimizing these capabilities is a combination of robust data links that enable information exchange and access to common mission data. Often described as the brains of the airplane, the mission data files are extensive on-board data systems compiling information from the environment, determining ‘friend from foe’ in areas where the F-35 is expected to perform peacetime and combat operations.

Situational Awareness is crucial in our 5th generation fighters, but common situational awareness is even more important,” said Lt. Col. G.B. van Woerden, Royal Netherlands Air Force Senior National Representative (SNR) to the F-35 Training Detachment with the 308th Fighter Squadron at Luke, who flew in the demonstration. “The coalition Mission Data File brings us a shared common picture, which we can all use for our warfighting capability in future conflicts. As a Dutch pilot, I am proud to have participated in this test to increase our interoperability amongst all partners in the F-35 enterprise.

Today, the U.S. F-35 fleet operates harmoniously through both robust data links and common mission data. However, introduce non-U.S. F-35s during coalition operations and the common operating picture can become disharmonious, leading to pilot confusion and poor decision making. The F-35 JPO’s Combat Data Systems team recognized this scenario and initiated engagement with key decision makers to break down legacy policy barriers. Working closely with the U.S. services’ mission data programming community and other stakeholders, the JPO led this CMDx demonstration to show how the common operating picture could be optimized during future coalition operations.

Maj. Alex Esson, a U.S. F-35 pilot with Luke’s 944th Fighter Wing also worked with the F-35 JOTT to plan the four-ship and flew in the demo. According to Esson, the F-35 is finally breaking the mold and converting to an ‘integration is the standard’ mindset.

For a long time, most countries have executed with an ‘integration by exception’ thought process and policy viewpoint,” said Esson. “Coalition MDx and common MADL [Multifunction Advanced Data Link] keys across the F-35 enterprise are a huge step in the right direction and allow all of us to properly integrate in a coalition environment. While there is still much work to be done, the trust and tactical experience gained when all F-35s in a fight share the same common picture will be invaluable to our individual countries’ wartime capability.