The latest test of the gatewayONE communication system, developed to allow F-35 and F-22 jets to communicate with each other and transfer mission data without being spotted, failed, but the Pentagon still believes it is on the right track to making the two fighters work together.
According to US Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper, the trial on 9 December at the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, managed to fulfill half of the tasks set before it. However, the gatewayONE module mounted on an unmanned Kratos XQ-58A Valkyrie drone flying alongside the two jets "lost connectivity" soon after take-off. The preliminary version is that some of the module's hardware was displaced or came loose during lift-off.
"We think we had a connector that came loose during it because the gateway itself was fine when the Valkyrie landed. So [it's] a thing we've learned from and we'll fix next time […] Next time we get out, flying in the next on-ramp, we'll probably check those soldering points more than one time", Will Roper said.
The Air Force believes the gatewayONE will be able to give the necessary connectivity between the newest jet and its predecessor, but admits the proof of concept might be months away due to the setbacks in the last trial. Nonetheless, the 9 December test gave some promising results – namely, the on the ground second gatewayONE module managed to transfer some of the data between the F-22 and the F-35 in the skies, such as targeting cues. Although, it never managed to transfer all the information it was supposed to.
The Pentagon initially considered installing a similar module, called the Advanced Battle Management System, directly on the jets to enable direct connectivity between the fourth and the fifth-generation fighters, and even ran the first test in 2019. According to defence officials, the two jets managed to exchange data using radio systems built by the respective contractors who modelled the original jets, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.
However, the Pentagon has since seemingly abandoned the idea in favour of an autonomous drone-mounted system. While normally with the introduction of new communication standards or data links the older machines are retrofitted with compatible equipment, such an operation could prove both costly and time-consuming, when it comes to an extensive fleet of nearly 190 American F-22 fighters. Air Force Chief Architect Preston Dunlap suggested during a conference with the press on 16 December, that using low-cost and expendable drones to fill in the communications gap between the two generations of jets might be a better approach.