Imagine a scenario where a U-2 spy plane were flying at unparalleled high altitudes and, as part of its mission, wound up spotting a group of enemy fighter jets or even a mechanized armored vehicle ground column. Just how fast could that spy plane get targeting information to fifth-generation fighter jets or ground commanders in position to attack? In this kind of circumstance, target coordinates, mapping, speed and anticipated time of impending attack data would need to be immediately sent to F-22 or F-35 stealth jet fighters, ground-based air defense locations and even advancing infantry formations.
An emerging Lockheed Martin Skunk Works program called Project Hydra just demonstrated this kind of air-to-air and air-to-ground connectivity in an exercise with the Air Force and Missile Defense Agency. The experiment, according to a statement from Lockheed’s well known and historically secretive Skunk Works division, “successfully linked a U-2, five F-35s and an F-22 in the air and provided real-time 5th Generation data to operators on the ground.”
The concept and potential breakthrough here is as clear as it is simple: it is about the speed of attack.
This central question, which is one of timing, could easily be identified as one of the defining elements of contemporary military modernization strategic thinking, essentially massively shortening or truncating sensor-to-shooter time to get ahead of or inside of an enemy’s decision cycle. This idea is often put in the context of the decades-old, yet still defining idea from former Air Force office John Boyd’s Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) Loop concept. Today, advanced networking technology with datalinks, high bandwidth waveforms, AI-empowered computing and software programmable radio is progressing at unprecedented speeds. Often referred to by senior U.S. military leaders as operating at the “speed of relevance,” the concept of multi-domain, real-time combat platform connectivity able to instantly pair “sensors” to “shooters” could well be described as a number one Pentagon priority. It is the backbone of the now progressing Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) effort.
“Project Hydra marks the first time that bi-directional communications were established between 5th Generation aircraft in-flight while also sharing operational and sensor data down to ground operators for real-time capability,” Jeff Babione, vice president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, said in a company statement.
Technically, the synergy was brought to fruition in large measure through a special Open Systems Gateway payload aboard a U-2 spy plane, which managed to integrate previously disparate communications pathways such as the F-35 jet’s Multifunction Advanced Datalink and F-22 jet’s Intra-Flight Data Link. The Air Force has in recent years made great progressing improving F-22-to-F-35 fighter connectivity in war through the use of a two-way-enabled LINK 16 connection and secure, less jammable radio linkages. However, Project Hydra appears to extend this to yet a new level by virtue of expanding secure pathways of connectivity and linking vital assets such as the U-2 in real-time. “Target tracks were transmitted by and through the U-2 into the fighter avionics and pilot displays,” the Skunk Works statement declared.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University. Image: Reuters.