ISR Miracles, at a Reasonable Price

Feb. 1, 2006

For USAF’s intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance systems, the coming decades will be a time of evolution—not revolution.

Fiscal austerity and the need to pace ISR fleet operations will impose new restrictions and drive USAF to pursue incremental advances in ISR capabilities. Plans call for most types of ISR aircraft—the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System, E-8 Joint STARS, RC-135 Rivet Joint, and the like—to get selected upgrades and keep on operating until 2025, perhaps beyond.

In the next few years, the Air Force will enhance its ISR capabilities by bringing on increasing numbers of Global Hawk and Predator unmanned aerial systems. These aircraft will offer USAF something it has never had: persistent and uninterrupted overwatch of specific areas of interest.

For broader-area coverage, the E-3 AWACS and E-8 Joint STARS, which track air and ground targets, respectively, will get progressively newer internal systems, as will the fleet of RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft. Their planned successor, the E-10 airborne command and control sensor platform, has run afoul of tight budgets and has been relegated to the status of a research project for now.

The Air Force will probably part with its venerable fleet of high-flying manned U-2 reconnaissance airplanes but not until Global Hawk demonstrates that it can, as expected, take over the mission with capability to spare.

Predator and its derivatives also signal the arrival of a new wrinkle in the ISR mission: a surveillance platform that also can deliver precision attack. In fact, the most recent versions of Predator are regarded as hunter-killer aircraft, with strike as their primary mission, rather than as reconnaissance airplanes that happen to be armed in case they discover a target of opportunity.

“Big Sensors” Get Old

The advanced age of much of the ISR fleet of “big sensor” aircraft—AWACS, Joint STARS, and Rivet Joint—seems not to be a serious handicap. If they are meticulously maintained, the aircraft are believed capable of lasting into the 2020s, by which time new technologies may replace them. However, significant investments will be needed—in the form of re-engining—to provide the aircraft with the power generation they require to keep current with the threat and the ever-expanding mission.

Reconnaissance aircraft now classified also are expected to be unveiled in the coming years. They reportedly will offer extremely stealthy unmanned entree into enemy airspace and also carry weapons. The F-22 Raptor, primarily a fighter and attack platform, also is intended to be a vast “vacuum cleaner” of battlefield information from its vantage point deep inside enemy airspace, passing data to the entire US military network. Its ISR capabilities, while described as considerable, are expected to remain secret for years to come.

All ISR platforms now in USAF service are considered to be low-density, high-demand systems, meaning there are never enough available to satisfy the needs of combatant commanders. Managing the operating tempo of the ISR fleet will pose a tough challenge indefinitely.

Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan III, commander of 9th Air Force and air boss for US Central Command, said in October that he regards the size of the existing ISR fleet to be adequate for continuing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“What we have right now is about right for this fight and our ability to sustain the fight,” Buchanan told Air Force Magazine in an interview.

Buchanan noted that his boss, US Central Command chief Gen. John P. Abizaid, “said, while we could easily always make the case that more is better, if I can’t sustain more, … then I may need to ratchet back, because we’re in this fight for the long haul.”

All the ISR assets can be called out for a major combat operation, “and I will, because that’s what we bought them for.” For Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, “we emptied the barn,” Buchanan said, adding that, had there been enough concrete available in the region to park them on, the Air Force would have summoned even more ISR platforms to the fight.

“We sent everything we could, used it, but then as soon as they were no longer needed, we pulled them back, because we knew we could not sustain it,” Buchanan said.

“What I have forward right now … is essentially a force that is sized to be sustained.”

He noted that, in the mid-1990s, the AWACS fleet and all its personnel were “very, very tired,” on near-constant deployment to CENTCOM and other theaters. As a result, depot maintenance, regular upgrades, and the crew training pipeline were all badly backlogged—so much so that AWACS specialists were “voting with their feet” and the Air Force had “a tough time” with retention.

Broken Force

“We broke it,” Buchanan said flatly. Whether symptoms of a specialty under extreme stress or just bad luck piling on, the AWACS miscues that resulted in the shootdown of an Army Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq in 1994 and in the loss of an entire E-3 and its crew near Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, the next year did not help the situation. (See “Aerospace World: Seven Careers Damaged in Black Hawk Review Action,” October 1995, p. 16, and “Aerospace World: Geese Caused AWACS Disaster,” March 1996, p. 10.)

There was little letup until OIF, when the era of the Iraqi no-fly zones effectively ended and the AWACS’ long mission concluded. After the wrap-up of major combat operations, it was possible to shift some of the AWACS airborne command and control mission to other platforms. The E-3 force was sent home, and “now, because the pressure is off of them, the AWACS community is very healthy,” Buchanan reported.

The AWACS fleet and personnel were placed on a two-year “reconstitution period” during which the AWACS were relieved of most deployments, the depot backlog was worked off, upgrades were put in place, and crews were allowed time to do the training and upgrade schooling they needed.

The Air Force wants to make sure it does not repeat the AWACS experience with any other part of its ISR fleet, Buchanan said.

There is some danger in doing just that with the E-8 Joint STARS, however. The E-8 took over much of the airborne command and control function when AWACS left the theater, and its unique capabilities have been in high demand since.

Unlike the AWACS, which scans for aircraft in hundreds of miles of airspace with the “flying saucer” radar mounted atop the fuselage, the Joint STARS uses its under-fuselage radar to map the surface and watch for moving vehicles. It was conceived in the Cold War as a way to keep tabs on large columns of moving armored vehicles—something it did in the two Gulf Wars—but in the last few years has been narrowing its scope to watch for smaller groups of vehicles or even individual cars.

Buchanan said he would like to employ the Joint STARS to watch huge swaths of Iraqi desert for vehicles on the move, something it is uniquely equipped to do. However, besides watching for small numbers of vehicles in very specific areas—what operators call the “soda straw” approach to using the E-8’s radar—the aircraft is being used heavily as a communications relay between ground troops and headquarters.

“We have people in Iraq who are very comfortable using the Joint STARS as a radio relay platform. That is a very inefficient way to use that tremendously capable system,” Buchanan asserted, “that I would much rather use monitoring the borders and the open desert regions for which its radar is ideally suited.”

However, because the Army is in charge, “I give up the initiative to the ground commander and the supported theater commander as to which of those things he considers to be the most important.”

He added that “we’re working … to get them used better, but … the supported ground commander has told me where he wants them. … That’s a tough call.”

Blended Wing in Action

The entire fleet of 17 Joint STARS is operated by the Air Force’s only blended active duty-Air National Guard unit, the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins AFB, Ga. The steady state of deployments is causing the Air Force to think hard about whether it can continue the way the E-8 is employed.

Part-time Air National Guard members who do the Joint STARS mission “are starting to see … a dip in the retention levels,” said Maj. Bill Gould, the Air Force’s ANG program element monitor and Joint STARS programmer. It’s not hard to see why, he said.

“The first time your employee goes off for a couple of months, OK. Second time, now it starts to be a problem. Third, fourth, fifth, now it starts to be a burden,” Gould said.

While USAF is considering both higher crew ratios for Joint STARS as well as converting some part-time Guardsmen to full-time status, neither option is a cheap fix, Gould said.

“It’s a discussion item,” he said, “but it’s a bill, and the Air Force has limited manpower and funds. So it’s almost like you’d be taking from another mission to make this mission more robust.”

It’s good to have the discussion, though, Gould said, if only to draw attention to the fact that just because the Air Force has 17 E-8s—an 18th is a test aircraft not used operationally—it only has enough manning for 12. That’s an important message to get out when the ISR-voracious planners of the combatant commanders want to know “why can’t we get more of them on the road,” Gould said.

Like most USAF systems now, the Joint STARS is on a “block” approach to upgrade. All the E-8Cs in service are Block 20 aircraft. The Block 30 upgrade, now in development, will add avionics improvements to comply with international Global Air Traffic Management regulations. These will allow the E-8Cs to operate in commercial air corridors and altitudes.

The Block 30 also will improve the machine-to-machine data transfer capability and add more modes to the ground-search radar.

The E-8 fleet was not bought new. Used Boeing 707s were acquired in the early 1990s and converted. The airplanes are well taken care of, though. Gould said, “The last assessment we’ve had … [is that] beyond 2025 would be their life expectancy.”

Even so, the aircraft have never performed to their original requirements, chiefly because of the elderly (original) TF30 engines, that neither can get the aircraft swiftly to altitude nor keep it there long enough for the required mission. Moreover, as further capabilities are added, the power generation capacity of the engines, already maxed out, will be exceeded. In addition, the engines are having to come off the wing for maintenance more than twice as often as originally predicted.

The cost of those repairs has gone up 300 percent since Fiscal 2002, Gould reported.

High Cost

The Air Force is considering a re-engining program for the Joint STARS, but with 76 engines plus spares to buy, the bill is high, considering the other priorities the service is already cutting out of its acquisition plan.

Gould said it would be preferable to lease the engines, but said that the idea of leasing has fallen into disfavor due to the tanker lease fiasco of a few years ago.

Congress has shown some inclination to add funds to re-engine the Joint STARS, but no formal plan has yet been adopted.

The influx of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial systems will not, for a while at least, reduce the need for Joint STARS. The Global Hawks can do some of the ground moving target indicator (GMTI) mission, but Lt. Col. Chris Edling, Joint STARS functional area manager for the Air Staff, said they will only be complementary capabilities for the foreseeable future.

“There aren’t many of those, and we don’t rely on them,” Edling said.

The Joint STARS was to give way to the E-10 Multisensor Command and Control Aircraft, or MC2A, sometime in the next decade. The Multiplatform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP), a radar upgrade for the Joint STARS, was to have been fitted to the E-10, along with other changes that would have made the E-10 a replacement for the AWACS and other ISR platforms as well. (See “Seeking a Triple-Threat Sensor,” November 2002, p. 38.)

However, budget cuts made in December indicated that the E-10 program would yield only a single Boeing 767 fitted with the MP-RTIP, to be used for test and development of more E-8 upgrades. At least for the next five years, the Joint STARS will be the only large ground-mapping radar airplane in USAF service, supplemented by Global Hawk.

Air Force officials said that Defense Department planners would like to see the USAF partner with the Navy on the multimission maritime aircraft, using the MP-RTIP, but the talks are still in the preliminary stage.

For its part, AWACS is well caught up on its program of upgrades, having just completed the Radar System Improvement Program, undertaken in concert with the UK and NATO, which are also AWACS operators. The upgrade increased the detection range of the aircraft’s main radar sensor to catch even smaller targets, although a program official said the E-3 is not yet configured to detect “stealthy” targets or cruise missiles. Such capabilities were to become available with the E-10.


Now in development is the AWACS Block 40 version, which will convert the aircraft to what will be called the E-3G configuration. The upgrade will change out 1970s computers for modern ones with an open architecture, meaning the AWACS can accept new electronic devices more readily. The Block 40 also increases its network-centric capability by integrating the data from numerous sensors.

The upgrade program seems to have secure funding, and the first E-3G should roll off the conversion line in 2009, according to Col. John Maxwell, Air Staff AWACS functional area manager. He said the AWACS, given continued rigorous care and upgrades, is expected to last to about 2035.

However, “we have airframe issues, too,” just like the E-8 and other 707-derived aircraft in USAF service, he said.

“Our dream list would include new engines, also,” Maxwell noted, and keeping the AWACS in service to 2035 would probably require just that. Like the Joint STARS, the AWACS needs more generator power than its existing engines can deliver.

Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne said in mid-December that he believes a re-engining of both the AWACS and Joint STARS fleet may be necessary, and he believes there are enough members of Congress who also “see it that way.”

A reliability and maintainability program is in place that is changing out components “prone to breakage” that keep the AWACS from being available at full capability.

There are 32 USAF E-3s, including four trainers and one test aircraft. Two are earmarked for the Pacific Theater, at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, and at Kadena AB, Japan. All told, there are about 22 to 23 available airplanes.

The two-year reconstitution period following OIF concluded last spring and left AWACS “looking pretty good” with aircrews, and the maintenance backlog was worked off as well, Maxwell said.

Although the AWACS is no longer deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, it does conduct Operation Noble Eagle missions flying air defense of the US and also is deployed to Ecuador for the counterdrug mission. The E-3s also played a significant role in last summer’s hurricane relief operations, deconflicting hundreds of rescue aircraft operating in a tight geographic area, enabling “a remarkable safety record” for the operation, Maxwell asserted.

The Air Force has about 24 U-2 aircraft available for use at any given time, out of an inventory of 34 airplanes. The service has just completed a substantial upgrade of the venerable reconnaissance airplane, early versions of which entered service in the 1950s. The upgraded aircraft have new engines, “glass” cockpits, and new wiring. New sensor packages are in development.

“The airframe itself is good well past 2025, maybe even as far [out] as 2040,” said Bruce Nelson, senior technical advisor on surveillance and reconnaissance to the Air Staff. However, the Air Force wants to act as quickly as possible in moving the U-2’s mission to the Global Hawk. The RQ-4 is able to remain on station for 24 hours and offers a wider variety of sensors.

“As Global Hawk matures, the Air Force will then look at phasing out the U-2 program. But there is no absolute date yet set for doing that,” Nelson said. While the Air Force does not want to let go of any ISR capability until it has its replacement firmly in hand, budget perssures may intervene. The service has asked DOD for permission to retire the U-2 three years earlier than planned, in 2011 instead of 2014.

During the buildup of Global Hawk, the Air Force will actually enjoy adequate high-flying aerial reconnaissance capability, able to meet most COCOM requests.

Going Pro

For a system that has until only very recently been considered experimental, Global Hawk has already played a significant role in operations. Just one advanced concept technology demonstration aircraft was available for the last few years, but it was put to work in OIF and was important in tracking and targeting Iraqi armored vehicle movements through a March 2003 sandstorm. It has remained in service, making three deployments to the theater, providing a full 24-hour on-station presence about every third day.

The first production system was to be deployed in December, doubling the capability available in Southwest Asia. Buchanan said he would now be able to have a Global Hawk up over both Iraq and Afghanistan every other day.

Global Hawks, like every other ISR system, are now described in block numbers. The original version was the RQ-4A. A larger model, with bigger wings, is the RQ-4B configuration, now known as a Block 30. It’s capable of lofting a 3,000-pound payload and keeping it at altitude for 24 hours in a row. The scope of area that Global Hawk can observe is classified, but it can watch regions obliquely as well as directly below.

The Air Force’s current inventory objective is for 51 Global Hawk systems, including ground stations, launch and recovery gear, and other support equipment. Of those, 18 will be available at any given time for use, the others being in for training, test, or servicing.

Of the 51, USAF plans to equip 12 with the MP-RTIP, also installing a version on Joint STARS. These 12 will be Block 40 aircraft. Seven will be the Block 10 model (formerly RQ-4As). All but the seven early versions will be “multi-int” aircraft, able to simultaneously provide GMTI, synthetic aperture radar, and electro-optical and infrared imagery.

All the aircraft are scheduled to be procured by Fiscal 2011 and enter the inventory by 2013 to 2014.

Nelson said Global Hawk is considered the centerpiece of the Air Force’s ISR program right now.

“The Air Force has made a significant investment to expand its ISR capability. Obviously, we have other projects—RC-135s and things that do other missions—but the Global Hawk is the primary development effort that we’re pursuing right now,” he said. The aircraft couples the capability of existing ISR platforms with “persistence and endurance,” new capabilities for USAF, he said.

Space Radar Questions

It is not yet known whether the Space Radar—which would be a constellation of satellites providing GMTI radar—will offset requirements for Global Hawk and Joint STARS. Again, USAF officials said they do not wish to let go of existing capabilities before the successor system is well in hand. While Congress has been generally supportive of the Space Radar, it is unlikely that a minimal operational capability will be available before late in the 2010s. So far, the Air Force has not programmed any offsets in anticipation of Space Radar.

The RC-135 fleet was originally manufactured as C-135s in 1961, but has undergone a rigorous maintenance and upgrade program because of its rapidly changing onboard technology and the insatiable demand for the aircraft. The RC-135s do signals intelligence, intercepting phone and radio calls, as well as data traffic.

“We’ve re-engined the fleet entirely,” Nelson said, and the Air Force also has given the type new glass cockpit instrumentation. The Air Force also puts each aircraft through a thorough programmed depot maintenance “every three to four years.” It’s necessary because the aircraft have a unique set of “appendages” in the form of antennas, fairings, and housings for sensors.

With that level of scrutiny, “all the structural issues … are addressed, as well as system modernization, both in its main sensors and its dissemination.”

The reason for the fast revisits of Rivet Joint capability is the rapidly changing technology involved in communications. As computers, radios, and, for example, cell phones get more advanced, the Rivet Joints need to be able to keep up with the changes.

Without a major structural improvement, “these airframes are good past 2023,” Nelson said. Among the advantages of the aircraft is its ability to carry 48 tons of gear.

“You have the ability to modify it fairly easily, and it has all the size, weight, and power to adapt it very quickly to the challenges that you face in the signals domain,” Nelson noted.

The 15th, 16th, and 17th Rivet Joints were built in recent years, on airframes brought out of storage.

The Rivet Joint is often misunderstood, Nelson said.

He said, “It is primarily a tactical platform,” directly apprising troops on the ground of enemy communications affecting them. The aircraft also have a role in supporting special operations, but much of their work is classified.

“It’s been in surge for the last four years,” Nelson said. “It is a workhorse over in CENTCOM today.”

Predator the Popular

The Predator has been in constant demand since the midsize UASes were first deployed operationally in the 1990s. Like the Global Hawk, early experimental versions were pressed into service for real-world combat operations and did well. Since then, the type has been advanced in blocks.

The Predator A, able to carry capability for full-motion video relay in both normal and low-light conditions, was upgraded with a laser designator and then Hellfire missiles, just in case it spotted a fleeting target when no combat aircraft were nearby. That aircraft—called MQ-1—is now known in the Air Force as a “killer scout.” It will be superceded by the MQ-9, a larger version with a slightly different configuration of wings and tail, and a bigger engine, able to carry more weapons. It’s known as a hunter-killer and represents a new niche in ISR, Nelson said. Its main mission will be strike, with ISR as a secondary mission.

The MQ-9 also will pave the way for the Joint Unmanned Combat Air System, or J-UCAS, which will be a large, stealthy armed aircraft capable of doing deep tactical reconnaissance, but J-UCAS will not replace the MQ-9, Nelson noted. The ISR community has been developing the MQ-9 because it had experience with the Predator A. After the J-UCAS comes into service, the hunter-killers will still be used.

The Air Force wants to have about 10 Predator squadrons by 2011. The size of the squadrons will vary, depending on their location (See “Smashing the UAV Stovepipe,” p. 50.)

Other, classified ISR platforms and capabilities are expected to be unveiled soon. Ralph Heath, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics chief, said his company expects to be allowed to talk about an unmanned ISR aircraft it is developing in the not-too-distant future, or at least “when the time is right.” Little is known about the aircraft other than that it is stealthy.

The Air Force also has been cagey in describing the ISR capabilities of the F-22 fighter, which will have elaborate suites of onboard sensors for collecting and disseminating battlefield data from deep within enemy territory.

Gen. T. Michael Moseley, USAF Chief of Staff, said in mid-December that the F-22 will be “equally capable” to Rivet Joints and EC-130 Compass Call aircraft in terms of its ability to collect and distribute battlefield data. He did not elaborate.

John Paquet, director of F-22 mission systems and software at Lockheed Martin, said the Raptor’s onboard sensor suite allows it “to gather information that no other platform has the ability to gather today” and that the capability is “?‘bleeps’ ahead of any sensors on any platform out there now.” The capabilities are classified because an enemy, knowing what they are, could devise countermeasures, Paquet said.

“We’d love to … tell you all the wonderful things that the [F-22] does, just like we’d like to tell a lot of people on [Capitol] Hill that need to know what it can do, but we’re just not able to do that,” he asserted.

Suffice to say, he added, that the F-22 “is out front, leading the charge into battle, and will be in a unique situation to gather that intel first, … before anybody else is even close to the battlefield.”

Over the past five years, USAF leadership has focused the ISR community on improving the sensor-to-shooter links, collapsing the time required from seeing a target to attacking it. Toward that end, leaders have emphasized the development of “machine-to-machine” links that will, as automatically as possible, designate targets and provide decision-makers with a wealth of data on each one.

Retired Gen. John P. Jumper, the Air Force Chief of Staff from 2001 to 2005, was “spot-on when he talked about the machine-to-machine interface,” Buchanan said. The technology is still developing—Buchanan said “we’re not there” yet—but the network connections, system to system, have been put in place.

“We are networked, airman-to-airman,” Buchanan asserted. It may take a radio call or Secret Internet Protocol Router Network e-mail, but “everything we’re doing now, we’re doing in real or as close to real time as we can get it.” He said that “while it may not be the machine that’s talking to the machine—it may be the operator that’s talking to the operator—we have established those links and we’re cross-cuing. … The effect is the same.”