New combat pod system wakes up with software updates during test
CHINA LAKE, Calif. — The operational assessment of the Angry Kitten Combat Pod electronic attack system in April demonstrated rapid reprogramming between flights. This combat pod, an updated version of the Georgia Tech Research Institute Angry Kitten pod, simulates enemy electronic attack signals during Air Force test and training missions. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office funded this operational assessment as part of the App-Enabled Rapidly Reprogrammable Electronic warfare/electromagnetic Systems experiment campaign, or AERRES.
Keith Kirk, the experiment program manager, said AERRES is assessing the operational utility and competitive advantages of open hardware/software architectures and standards to provide app-enabled electronic warfare/electromagnetic systems solutions. He said Air Force leaders noticed the test because they expect to employ more open architecture software to allow agile changes in future systems.
“Over the past four years, it has been well documented in the strategic guidance that we have to do this,” Kirk said. “This is the first operational assessment of a potentially deployable and combat-ready electronic warfare system for fighter aircraft moving in that direction.”
Given the success of the pod in training and demonstrated ability to be reprogrammed, Air Combat Command recommended four pods be converted into combat pods to provide attack capabilities against enemy radio frequency threat systems, instead of simulating them.
The experiment aimed to show how this new government-owned architecture could be used to better counter threat systems that use software-defined radars to quickly change their radio frequency signature to make it more difficult for U.S. aircraft to identify and attack them.
Historically, Air Force electronic warfare systems were designed to have tightly coupled software and hardware, which were effective, but also took considerable time and funding to update. The Angry Kitten architecture provides greater flexibility to update or reprogram the system as the electronic warfare environment changes.
Similar to a smartphone and digital app store, Kirk said today’s electronic warfare/electromagnetic systems need to be quickly updated or loaded with new software to defeat complex emitters and constantly changing electromagnetic systems threats.
“The hardware and software stovepipe solutions prevalent throughout the Air Force enterprise significantly impair the Air Force’s ability to quickly adapt and defeat new emerging electromagnetic systems threats,” he said. “AERRES is demonstrating open hardware/software solutions that allow platforms to upgrade capability by swapping hardware modules and/or software apps to change electromagnetic systems offensive and defensive effects.”
Lt. Col. Stephen Graham, the Angry Kitten Combat Pod operational assessment test director, said during the two-week test, the self-defense jamming pod’s mission data file software was updated overnight to improve performance seen against threats each day.
Graham, who is also the F-16CM electronic warfare test director for Air Combat Command’s Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force, said the government-owned software allows programmers to update the software and install new mission data files without delay.
The data files use an open-source programming language, which enables programmers to design effective jamming techniques against threats with known radio frequency signature data. Graham said the techniques were evaluated over many months to improve accuracy and efficiency. Multiple organizations, including the 36th Electronic Warfare Squadron, Georgia Tech Research Institute, Air National Guard-Air Force Reserve Test Center and the U.S. Air Force Air Warfare Center, worked to ensure the most current techniques were programmed.
Before the flight test event, programmers developed the specific mission data files for the system, and the team worked with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Agile Combat Support Directorate to verify and validate these updates in labs at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. Team members created next-day data file updates at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, during the operational assessment.
“The flexibility of the Angry Kitten technique description language enabled daily mission data file changes based on open-air testing observations to enhance effectiveness against a multi-threat environment,” Graham said.
He noted the operational assessment aimed to identify effectiveness and suitability of the training pod and provide operational feedback to inform Air Combat Command on a potential future fielding decision.
The test team completed 30 sorties and demonstrated post-flight reprogramming to improve effects seen in earlier flights.
“The flight test at China Lake was our final operational assessment event,” Kirk said. “The software was updated within hours based on the performance they were seeing against certain threats and then was improved, and those improvements were verified during flight test the following day. That’s really tough to do with software and tools that are not designed to open standards.”
Kirk said while the future of Angry Kitten Combat Pod is still undecided, the program has dramatically shaped the direction of electronic warfare in the Air Force.
“The AERRES experiment is demonstrating app-like capabilities for the 350th Spectrum Warfare Wing, and the electronic warfare enterprise in general,” Kirk added. “We are making great progress toward software-enabled electronic warfare systems that allow us to quickly update our effects based on the changes in the radio frequency environment and the type of effects that we want to make happen.”
Graham said he expects the open architecture software work of Air Force Research Laboratory and the new Spectrum Warfare Wing will benefit more DOD systems in the future.
“It’s an exciting time to be working to improve our electronic warfare capabilities,’’ Graham said.