USAF MUSTANGS Is Neither Fighter Plane Nor Muscle Car, But a Ford F-550 With Unique Tricks

F-35 Lightning and a Ford F-550 in MUSTANGS guise 25 photos
Photo: USAF/Airman 1st Class Trevor Bell
Block 4-ready F-35 Lightning ii over the Mojave DesertF-35 Lightning wearing stunning camoUSAF and RoKAF F-35s flying togetherF-35A Lightning II over the North SeaF-35A Lightning II during She Flies with Her Own Wings air showF-35 Lighting IIs over the Joint Pacific Alaskan Range Complex (JPARC)F-35 Lightning II pulling a multiverse-like stuntF-35 Lightning IIs during refueling mission42 F-35A Lightning IIs on massive elephant walkF-35 Lightning II on hot pit refueling in JapanF-35A Lightning IIs over the UKF-35A Lightning IIs on an elephant walkF-35A Lightning II with the 495th Fighter SquadronF-35A Lightning II at Thunder and Lightning Over ArizonaF-35A Lightning II on vertical ascentF-35 Lightning buzzing the CN TowerF-35A Lighting IIF-35A Lightning IIF-35 LightningF-35A Lightning IIF-35A Lightning IIF-35A Lightning IIF-35A Lightning IIF-35 Lightning cruising subsonic into the sunset
For many of the people alive today, the term mustang generally has a triple meaning. First and foremost it depicts a free-roaming, wild horse native to the Western United States. Then, it was the name chosen by North American Aviation for the P-51 World War II fighter plane that was to become one of the most iconic such machines of the conflagration. And last but certainly not least, it’s the name of one of the most successful muscle car families that ever were.
So, when hearing about the U.S. Air Force (USAF) working on something called Mustangs, the mind immediately makes the connection to the P-51. But for the purposes of our story here, the term MUSTANGS, spelled in all caps, has nothing to do with that, nor with the Ford vehicle -  although, to be fair, the Blue Oval does play a role in this story (at least for the time being), as you’ll see below.

MUSTANGS stands for Multi-Utilization Secure Tactical and Network Ground Station. It’s a term the Air Force uses to designate “a mobile vehicle that can download, process, and offload important data from Quick Reaction Instrumentation Package-equipped aircraft.” And mobile means it kind of eliminates the need for a fixed infrastructure for this task.

In our case, that mobile vehicle is a Ford F-550, one of the more recent iterations of the monstrous, Super Duty F-Series truck platform the Dearborn-based manufacturer has been making since the late 1990s. It’s not your standard Super Duty, of course, but one fully equipped to do all of that downloading, processing, and transmitting of aircraft data, greatly expanding the speed with which updates are made to fighter jets in light of their missions.

Last year, the MUSTANGS completed a series of tests during the Pacific Edge 22 exercise, and during those flights, the 59th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES), the group tasked with this mission, “hit major milestones in the development” of the system. We are not told exactly what those milestones were, of course, and, separately, the full array of tech deployed of the F-550 was, of course, not made public. We do not even have a full set of photos of the Ford truck in MUSTANGS guise, as made clear by the main image of this piece, but we do know how it’s supposed to change the way aerial warfighting is conducted.

USAF and RoKAF F\-35s flying together
Photo: USAF/Senior Airman Trevor Gordnier
You see, America’s most modern airplanes, like the F-35 Lightning, are constantly being upgraded for upcoming missions based on lessons learned during each previous flight, on the profile of the upcoming mission, and a number of other factors only those involved know in full.

To be eligible for upgrades, it often happens for data collected during aircraft flight to be downloaded to a secure, fixed facility. There, it is transferred to a hard drive and delivered to a data processing facility for processing. It then gets analyzed, updates are devised, and so on, in a process that is “cumbersome and too slow for the rapidly changing operational environment,” as the U.S. Air Force says.

The MUSTANGS system changes all that. Data from the aircraft is downloaded directly to the mobile vehicle and gets sent over the horizon to a data processing lab for reprocessing. In a matter of minutes, the lab should be capable of coming up with an update to be made ready and delivered to the aircraft for its next flight. And all of this could take place extremely fast.

During last year’s drills, the MUSTANGS proved it could process, curate, and send F-35A Lightning II data over the horizon to a reprogramming laboratory, but the 59th TES has even bigger plans for this year.

F\-35A Lightning II during She Flies with Her Own Wings air show
Photo: USAF/Capt. Kippun Sumner
During the Northern Edge 23 exercise expected to take place in Alaska later this year, the military unit will try to make some of the F-35s taking part transfer their data to the MUSTANGS. There, it will get processed, and sent over to the 513th Electronic Warfare Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

This crew, which manages something called the U.S. Reprogramming Laboratory, will then produce so-called Mission Data Files (it already does this for all American military aircraft currently flying, regardless of the branch using them, but using the lengthy method we described earlier). These files will then be sent back to the fighter jets, using the MUSTANGS as a medium once more.

As per the USAF, such updates usually took weeks and have never been “accomplished before in a matter of hours.”

The MUSTANGS is an integral part of the Crowd-Sourced Flight Data program. For now, it’s described as being designed just for the test community, but if all goes according to plan, it will have “massive operational implications,” as per Lt. Col. Nathan Malafa, 59th TES commander. So much so that we are to expect America’s fighter jets to be even more "lethal and survivable" than they already are.
If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram

Editor's note: Gallery shows various F-35s.

Press Release
About the author: Daniel Patrascu
Daniel Patrascu profile photo

Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
Full profile


Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories