A new Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) capability is on the horizon for the United States Air Force. The solution is coming from a small business that has already outfitted hundreds of helicopters with increased command and control through a satellite link, push-to-talk communication, real-time aircraft tracking, voice and video recording, and flight data monitoring.

Outerlink Global Solutions recently executed the first air demonstration of IRIS on the B-52 Stratofortress at Barksdale Air Force Base. IRIS was paired with an Iridium Certus terminal for the demo to provide constant communication and reporting.

“In a wartime scenario the single point of failure lies in our ability to communicate,” said Lt. Col. Andrew Embry, 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron commander. “If we can’t push these data packages out instantaneously, then we will lose. The IRIS system is the solution that we need in order to equip the warfighter for today’s fight.”

While the bomber crew took to the skies, a combat operations team from the 608th Air Operations Center provided command and control and assessed the voice and data transfer capabilities that were observed from the IRIS-equipped B-52 to include the transmission of images and videos.

The IRIS system has been used in various sectors of the helicopter industry for years, with the majority of systems installed on air medical and oil and gas aircraft. Now, Outerlink has proven it capabilities to the Air Force and is on track to become a successful defense contractor over the next few years.

“Today, we learned that the IRIS System can be immediately employed using current joint tactics for operational and tactical control of long-range strike aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Paul Goossen, 608th AOC Combat Operations Division chief.

The AOC team also acknowledged the method of “how” the Service acquires a new capability plays a significant role in the timeline of fielding the new capability.

Executed through the AFWERX Small Business Innovation Research Phase II contract, the flight demonstration was designed to test the feasibility of using Outerlink Global Solutions’ commercial off the shelf system that would tie the B-52 into a global satellite architecture that would allow for unimpeded coverage.

“We found that the AFWERX SBIR’s program works to find rapid prototype solutions through commercially available means,” said Chris Morales, 608th AOC Combat Operations Division deputy chief. “Sometimes the solutions to global problems can be found in your local community from small vendors.”

The SBIR program engages small businesses with federal research and development, cutting down the Air Force acquisition process from years to months, which allows for the technology to be implemented on the platform faster. AFWERX was identified as the fastest way to develop a prototype, demonstrate its capability, and conduct some level of integration faster than the typical programmatic process.

“This day has been two years in the making and it’s exciting for us and the Air Force. We’re proud to be able to make a contribution in support of our warfighters,” said Outerlink Vice President and Managing Director Don Rucker. “We believe every command needs IRIS for communication, tracking, and data. This is just the beginning.”

The B-52 is slated to continue flying well into the 2050s but doing so means the platform must be equipped with the most up to date navigation systems and improved communication capabilities.
Following the success of this test event, Air Force Global Strike Command will continue working through the AFWERX process to attain a SBIR Strategic Finance contract to support IRIS and allow for permanent bomber integration and seamless coordination across geographic Air Operation Centers using the system. IRIS is set to replace the Global Iridium Bomber Set (GLIBS) that has been in service since 2017.

IRIS is one of many programs on the horizon responsible for the B-52 paradigm shift from a legacy sustainment platform to a lethally modernized multi-domain aircraft.

“Working with the Air Force opens doors for us to further develop the IRIS product,” said Rucker. “We are excited to continue developing our products and services for both the military and our commercial customers. In a way, it feels like we’re just getting started and the sky is the limit.”