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Air Force seeks aerial communications relay to support warfighter

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The U.S. Air Force uses satellite communications for many of its missions. These beyond-line-of-sight networks support a variety of applications including voice, file transfer, text chat, and range extension of tactical data links. But satellite communication systems are a limited resource “and do not have the capacity to support all of the warfighter’s information exchange needs,” the Air Force said in contract documents released Tuesday. “To exacerbate the issue, during times of conflict, these communications could be degraded or denied. An alternate communications path through the aerial layer would add resilience to these networks.”

The need to improve battlefield communications has forced the Air Force to solicit information from industry and academia regarding affordable and innovative means of providing aerial communications relay to support missions. The Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) announced the project in a Request For Information (RFI) document titled “Affordable Aerial Relay.”

“The Air Force’s intention is to gather additional insight into communication payloads, potential platforms and integrated platform/communications payload concepts,” AFMC said in the RFI.

The goal is to develop a robust and expansive communications infrastructure to support the warfighter across all military operations. This infrastructure is known as the Joint Aerial Layer Network (JALN). “The JALN is based on dedicated aircraft providing the gateway between both surface and aerial assets in lieu of satellite systems,” the Air Force said. JALN will be used to tie together assets on the ground, in the air and in space.

The Air Force envisions an aircraft, possibly an unmanned aerial vehicle, that will remain at a designated location for at least 24 hours, above 40,000 feet, providing JALN services.

AFMC invites companies capable of supporting the JALN project to submit their ideas by March 25.

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