‘Podded’ capabilities have the potential to significantly increase the flexibility of Air Force assets across a range of traditional and emerging roles. In this second of a three-post series, Squadron Leader Jimmy explores collection options other than full motion video (FMV) that could enhance platform utility and flexibility with minimal interference to traditional mission sets.
In the previous post I discussed the potential utility of mission augmentation pods to provide the Australian Defence Force with an expanded mission capability for aircraft that are not currently ISR capable.
TacRecce has been a capability gap for the ADF since the retirement of the RF-111C in 2010. Contemporary TacRecce refers to photographic reconnaissance conducted by tactical aircraft within the operational theatre. Current TacRecce capabilities include the US Navy Super Hornet with ‘Shared Reconnaissance Pod’ (SHARP) or RAF Tornado GR4 with Reconnaissance Airborne Pod for TORnado (RAPTOR). TacRecce continues to be a high demand asset in recent and contemporary operations such as Libya, Afghanistan and the fight against Daesh, for reasons explained below. TacRecce is also regularly used in the UK to provide a rapid response imagery capability to support flood emergency response activities; Figure 1 below shows one such example from 2014. It is worth noting that despite the common perception of the ubiquity of satellite imagery, the US continues to maintain the U-2 in service with both the Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System-2 (SYERS-2) and the Optical Bar Camera (OBC), as their flexibility in tasking, coverage and resolution are still unmatched. The USAF is currently trialling a next generation SYERS sensor on the RQ-4 Global Hawk to ensure continuity of this capability.
Figure 1: Electro Optical Image from RAPTOR Reconnaissance Pod on RAF Tornado Jet of UK Floods in 2014. [Image Credit: Crown Copyright, UK MOD]
TacRecce provides a rapid response, wide area, high resolution Electro-optical and Infra-Red (EO/IR) imaging capability. Threat dependent, the Collection Management Authority could dictate exactly when collection is conducted, what time of day, what slant angle and azimuth and potentially re-visit the target multiple times per hour, based on the requirements of the supported commander. TacRecce can also get in under cloud in cases where satellites are unable to. Collection can be overt or discrete depending on the profile flown by the platform; the target stand off of late 1990s standard TacRecce sensors for imaging facilities could be up to 70nm. Due to the nature of the sensors, essentially large aperture cameras bolted to an aircraft, the imagery can quickly and easily be released at ‘Unclassified’ for release to Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), foreign partners and the media. Multi-spectral Imaging, such as that on the U-2 SYERS-2 system provides further advantages to the TacRecce capability that I will not delve into here. Full Motion Video (FMV) sensors provide a high resolution but short ranged video of an area through a ‘drinking straw’; a good TacRecce sensor rapidly gathers a snapshot of a vast swathe of the surface at very high resolution.
As a mission augmentation capability on a C-17, C-27 or C-130, a TacRecce pod could provide significant value in a number of scenarios.
Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) and Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI)
Radar has a significant advantage of range and coverage over FMV sensors, to an even greater extent than EO/IR TacRecce pods. Pods are already on the market that use SAR to provide collection deck based autonomous SAR imaging supported by image recognition and change detection technology on board. One such system designed for combat aircraft, the ELTA ELM-2060P, advertises a range of 90nm for collection; compared to around 10-20nm for FMV sensors. SAR provides a high resolution, extremely accurate, all weather and long stand off capability. SAR imagery can capture very large areas in a very short time frame; with appropriate interpretation these extremely accurate geo-referenced images can be used as a snapshot to quickly identify changes in an area from the baseline mapping; Figure 2 shows an example of SAR being put to use in support of emergency services in the UK in 2014.
Figure 2: Flooded area analysis of the Thames Valley and Hampshire, UK generated by Synthetic Aperture Radar imaging provided by a Sentinel R1 sortie over Somerset. [Image Credit: Crown Copyright, UK MOD]
SAR pods have an additional capability that could be of use in a broad range of ADF scenarios: GMTI. GMTI uses the radar to detect and track moving vehicles over a relatively very large area compared to the sensor. This capability has seen broad combat applications from tracking Saddam Hussein’s army in 1991 and 2003 through to identifying insurgent patterns of life and activity in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout recent and current campaigns. Figure 3 gives an idea of the area that dedicated SAR/GMTI systems collect; the image indicates an approximate coverage area of 150 x 150 km square for an operator’s screen for the USAF E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). A SAR / GMTI capability in a mission augmentation pod on ADF air mobility and maritime platforms would be significantly smaller than on JSTARS, but could be of significant value in domestic situations, as well as those in overseas military and disaster relief scenarios.
Figure 3: USAF E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System coverage in Operation Desert Storm [Image Credit: Northrop Grumman]
When considering ADF employment scenarios for mission augmentation pods beyond FMV, TacRecce or SAR and GMTI offer minimal-interference capabilities to augment an aircraft’s primary role, rather than a ‘re-roling’ of the platform. Collection capabilities at range would provide a significant number of non-interference collection opportunities from the planned and actual route of an aircraft; significantly more than could be collected by shorter ranged sensors like FMV. A stand off range of 70-90nm provides vastly more opportunities for non-interference collect than one of 10-20nm.
In the next post post, the final of the three-post series, I will contextualise the potential of mission augmentation pods through the use of two vignettes that describe how the introduction of such pods could support ADF operations.
Squadron Leader Jimmy is a current serving RAAF Intelligence Officer. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.