Watch any computer-generated footage from any of the major manufacturers regarding their vision of Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance in the future and you will be assailed this images of UAVs the size of a hummingbird flying inside a building, or gigantic airships that can stay aloft for days or weeks - and everything in between. All of it will be sharing data with a myriad of other platforms in the blink of an eye, allowing the decision makers to make the right call in a timely manner and win the day for the good guys.
But is this vision of a networked utopia actually desirable, or achievable? Well, yes, and no, must be the answer: modern technology is allowing us to miniaturise platforms and sensors, we have the technology to build massive aerostats, we can and do share data in a blink of an eye, but some things are immutable. The laws of physics will ultimately limit the amount of data that can be pushed down the ISR ‘pipe’ and the human brain can only accept so much information in the short space of time necessary for critical decision making in the fog of war.
Command, Control, Communications and Computers ISR (C4ISR) has to keep pace with the data taken off-board all the sensor platforms we see in our computer-generated video, or the Command and Control of a force will simply collapse under the weight of information pouring in. Satellites, the main enabler of rapid data sharing must also evolve to keep pace with the increased amounts of data they will handle (increased bandwidth), and they must be kept secure – China’s recent satellite killing demonstration sent shudders of real fear through the world’s militaries.
Today there are two main ‘streams’ of ISR, which retired US Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula calls ‘Hunting versus Gathering’. first is the ‘Sensor to Shooter’ information, designed to shorten the kill chain, where the second has been described as ‘Sensor to Knowledge’ – the gathering and sorting of information about an enemy that will enable you to win the battle. According to Deptula these streams need to be brought together to ‘bind’ operations centres with what he terms the ‘network-centric collaborative targeting system’, to not only gather the information, but actually conduct ISR operations as the hunter.
The requirement for the transfer of large amounts of information around the modern battlespace has seen an evolution in ISR platform use. For example, Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (TUAV) are not just used to gather imagery and other data, they are being increasingly used as a data relay asset to ensure the information flows around the battlefield efficiently. Analysts even claim that this could become the primary mission for TUAVs in the not too distant future.
As we move further away from the traditional manned ISR platforms and into the world of unmanned air and space-based data-gathering assets, it is important to develop the human interfaces accordingly. Traditional wisdom has it that whomever has the most knowledge will win, but is there such a thing as too much knowledge?
The United States of America has been reliant on its traditional ISR platforms for many years now; Air Force U-2Rs and RC-135 ‘Rivet Joint’ aircraft operating alongside Navy EP-3E Orions and Army RC-12 ‘Guard Rail’ aircraft, backed up by satellite imagery. However the first Gulf War of 1989/90 uncovered holes in the real-time intelligence gathering system – the ‘Great Scud Hunt’ was really the ‘Great Scud Farce’ - finding and destroying a 40-foot missile and its attendant vehicles proved far more difficult than expected.
Arguably it is the so-called Global War on Terror which has seen the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle come of age and today there are literally dozens airborne at any time over Afghanistan. These UAVs vary in size from the diminutive hand-launched IAI Skylark, useful for seeing over the next hill or compound wall, to the huge Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk soaring at 60,000 feet above the battlefield and keeping on station for hours on end.
So important is modern ISR to decision makers that the US Air Force, for example, formed an Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance Agency at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas during 2007. An evolution of the former Air Intelligence Agency, the ISR Agency oversees two full-time ISR Wings, a Reserve ISR Group, the Air Force Technical Applications Centre and the National Air and Space Intelligence Centre. Its mission statement requires it to ‘organize, train, equip and present assigned forces and capabilities to conduct ISR for combatant Commanders and the Nation’.
So what is the future for American ISR? The bandwidth problem is being addresses by the launching of new satellites and developing antennae such as Boeing’s recently-tested Ka-band phased array antenna system which will enable wideband SATCOM for military and civil users by using electronically controlled beams to transmit and receive data.
Following recent successful ground testing of the system, Boeing’s VP and General Manager of its Network and Tactical Systems division, Charles Toups, explained, “This Ka-band phased array antenna system supports a significant increase in bandwidth with a smaller antenna than previous Ku-band antennas. Boeing is continuing to invest in secure data-communication technologies that will improve our customers’ ability to remain networked while mobile”.
The use of tactical datalinks is becoming widespread now, allowing platforms to share data at relatively close range without necessarily using satellite time. The US Navy uses Hawklink, a proprietary TCDL to send data including high-definition video between its surface vessels and helicopters. Future combat aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter will come with a TCDL as standard.
Platforms too are evolving to meet the ever-present requirement for ISR. Lockheed Martin, for example, talks about an air vehicle that is part aerostat, part lifting body as large as one of the US Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers! On a (slightly) smaller scale, Northrop Grumman announce in February that it had completed Critical Design Review of its Long Endurance Multi-intelligence Vehicle (LEMV) airship, three of which will provide the US Army with a 21-day persistent ISR capability. The manufacturer says it is ‘longer than a football field and higher than a seven storey building’ and its mission systems are built around its open-architecture design which will allow ‘plug and play’ payload capability. “The system rapidly accommodates next-generation sensors as emerging field requirements dictate and will provide increased operational utility to battlefield commanders” said Northrop Grumman’s Alan Metzger, Today, our system readily integrates into the Army’s existing Universal Ground Control Station and Deployable Common Ground System command centres and ground troops in forward operating bases”.
New video capture technology has been developed by Sierra Nevada, which involves a spherical array of up to twelve cameras pod-mounted on a UAV. Billed as an ‘all-seeing eye’ the system is eerily known as ‘Gorgon’s Stare’ and has recently been tested aboard a General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone. Although the system is not working as well as had been hoped, it is expected to be trialled under operational conditions in Afghanistan in the first half of the year. ‘Gorgon’s Stare’ as currently tested uses five video and four infra-red cameras and processes received imagery through a separate processor pod for ‘day and night time surveillance operations over an extremely wide area’. It reportedly renders the host UAV capable of supplying up to 50 video feeds and, when operational, will be used on a range of the larger unmanned platforms.
Israel is arguably the ‘father’ of TUAV systems, having used them operationally for many years now. The country has a robust industry with both Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) and Elbit marketing a range of air vehicles and sensor systems, and both have enjoyed considerable export success.
The Israeli Defence Forces also have a significant Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) capability but, naturally, does not discuss it in any detail. The Air Force uses modified Grumman Gulfstream airframes to perform AEW&C and surveillance roles. Both sub-variants are modified in Israel by IAI.
The country also has a very efficient Command & Control arrangement, which is able to act on incoming data very quickly indeed. During the Israel-Hamas war of 2009, for example, international media reports of sensor to shooter times of under a minute were published.
This is a large improvement over the previous Israel-Hezbollah conflict in 2006, when Israeli forces were accused of poor targeting information and cumbersome ISR data processing.
Airborne ISR is not the only Israeli solution either, in 2010 Elta unveiled a 4x4 light armoured off-road vehicle known as the EL/I-3302 ISRV. Sensors include Ground Movement Detection Radar, day and night EO-IR, embedded GPS and SATCOM.
Long gone are the days when British, French and American military missions would tear around what was then Soviet-controlled East Germany armed with single-lens reflex cameras, a telephoto lens and rolls of wet film. However some things remain; the need for SIGINT aircraft to determine an enemy’s Electronic Order of Battle for instance has not changed – but the platforms have.
Europe today has a vibrant UAV industry, with counties such as Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden (at least) actively developing the capability.
Undoubtedly at the top of the ISR tree however is the Germany and NATO Euro Hawk High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) system, which is currently entering service. Based on the Global Hawk air vehicle the system has a German/European sensor package, supported by EADS. Missions for Euro Hawk include IMINT (locating, identifying and tracking Ground Moving Targets and Fixed and Stationary Targets using a variety of sensors), SIGINT and Maritime Surveillance. EADS claims Euro-Hawk will “Disseminate results in near real-time to all national and NATO levels of command in support of tactical, strategic or operational assessments, decision making, target acquisition, battle management, and Battle Damage Assessment (BDA)”. The company claims that surveillance of an area the size of Austria and Croatia combine can be carried out in 24 hours, day or night and in all weather.
Whilst the rest of Europe is increasing its ISR capability, Britain would seem hell-bent on dismantling it. The Nimrod R-1 Electronic Intelligence aircraft was retired a little while ago and in the recent round of defence cuts the UK Government has removed the Nimrod MR.2 maritime patrol aircraft (which, like Australia’s AP-3C Orions have a useful overland surveillance capability which has been put to good use over Afghanistan) and will retire the Raytheon/Bombardier Sentinel R.1 Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR) capability once the mission in Afghanistan is complete. To redress the balance the UK is buying in to the American ‘Rivet Joint’ programme and is having three KC-135 tankers taken out of the boneyard and rejuvenated for the purpose. What this also means however, is that from now on Britain will be more dependent upon its US and NATO allies for its ISR information.
Information about Russian or Chinese ISR systems is, unsurprisingly, more difficult to come by, although both have a satellite reconnaissance and communication capability and China, at least, has demonstrated her ability to shoot down a satellite in geo-stationary orbit.
On a more tactical level, Russia has used indigenous UAVs in its recent operations in Georgia, and has reportedly found them lacking. As a result, the country turned to Israel for drones with western media reports suggesting it acquired at least three different types.
China is pursuing C4ISR technology and has reportedly received equipment from the former Soviet Union to assist in its quest to develop a networked system. Another of the country’s major goals the development of a space-based C4ISR capability and it already has Electro-Optical and Synthetic Aperture Radar sensors deployed into orbit and capable of sharing images with its military command network.
Finally, if anyone was in any doubt about China’s desire to catch up to the west in UAV development, they had only to attend last years’ Air Show China, held at Zhuhai, where between 20 and 30 different designs were on show, including the first HALE platform. And yes, they even had a computer-generated video of its networked ISR assets at work, locating and engaging a US Carrier Battle Group!
Australia has a number of ISR assets fielded in Afghanistan, including leased UAVs – Scan Eagles and Herons – and other important platforms such as the AP-3C maritime patrol aircraft. All of these have been procured offshore, including Shadow-200 Tactical UAVs that will enter service late in 2011. Indigenous Australian UAV developers such as Codarra and Aerosonde – the latter now owned by the US AAI Corporation – have been largely ignored by the ADF in the apparent belief that any local product must be inferior to that purchased from another country. A thankful exception is in imagery – where the Australian company Sentient has developed remarkable motion-detection software with the brand name ‘Kestrel’. Flowing from work done by the Defence Science & Technology Organisation, ‘Kestrel’ automatically cues an operator when motion is recognised – and this can be an object as small as 2x2 pixels. Indeed, the system can even detect motion where the object is less than a single pixel in circumstances where there is a great deal of contrast. This software is fielded in Afghanistan and has made a major contribution to reducing operator workload.