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Sikorsky exploring ways to link next-gen helicopters to F-35

Lockheed Martin F-35 "Lightning II's" from Turkey. (Robert Sullivan/Flickr)

Lockheed Martin is exploring ways to connect Sikorsky’s next-generation helicopters with combat jets, including the F-35 fighter.

The move is part of the company’s increased emphasis on networking all of the weapons it builds, which is running in parallel to a number of Pentagon initiatives to link all of its weapons on the battlefield.

“In everything that Sikorsky does going forward, we’re thinking about how to network our platforms into the battle space more than we ever have in the past,” Paul Lemmo, the president of Lockheed’s helicopter division, said in a recent interview.

Sikorsky is developing two next-generation helicopters, the Raider X and the Defiant X, which it is building with Boeing. The company is pitching the aircraft in the separate “Future Vertical Lift” competitions to replace the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior and the UH-60 Black Hawk. Bell is competing against Sikorsky in each contest.

Sikorsky is planning to equip a Black Hawk helicopter with special communications equipment that could be used on next-generation aircraft it is developing for the Army. The Black Hawk is expected to fly during upcoming “Project Convergence” exercises.

“We’ll take a Black Hawk and we’ll have it act as a surrogate for one of the [Future Vertical Lift] platforms,” Lemmo said. “But it’ll have the capability, the appropriate radio, the software, whatever to do that networking, to pass that information to an F-35.”

Many weapons across the military have different types of “datalinks,” which are essentially modems that transfer information. In some cases, the datalinks are so unique that weapons made by the same company cannot connect to one another. Take for instance the F-22 and the F-35, stealth fighters made by Lockheed Martin. Earlier this year during a military experiment, the planes were able to pass data to one another for the first time. But the jets needed a U-2 spy plane equipped with a special translation “gateway” to receive the data from one plane and then pass it along to the other.

Even though Sikorsky’s Defiant is considered a troop carrier, likely without offensive weapons, the company envisions it “being much more connected” and “being able to give and receive real-time information on the battlefield,” Lemmo said.

The Pentagon in recent years has put a premium on connecting weapons across the battlefield, regardless of military branch or the manufacturer. It would allow commanders to get quicker access to intelligence and make decisions faster than enemies. This is particularly the case in the Pacific where military assets could be thousands of miles apart.

“If you think about the INDOPACOM region, they’re going to have to be much more networked than [they] are capable [of] today,” Lemmo said.

Jim Taiclet, who became CEO of Lockheed last year after two decades in the telecommunications sector, has made connecting the company’s weapons among his top priorities. He has been forging partnerships with commercial network and technology firms across the United States.

“We’ve been holding CEO-level summits with semiconductor companies, distributed cloud-computing companies, mobile phone operators, and network and computer companies to figure out how we can be more like them and how we can get them on our team,” Taiclet said last week during a discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Lockheed is establishing “architecture,” Taiclet said.

“We’re going to start with Lockheed Martin platforms because we have immediate access to the mission computers and systems,” he said. “But we do want to bring in our industry peers along with us to be able to accelerate the road map for all the OEMs, for all the companies that we can help our customers with.”

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