In recent years, the Air Force has moved out smartly in modernizing its tactical fighter wings with successively more capable variants of its F-15 and F-16 fighters.
It has been guided in this by the Tactical Fighter Roadmap devised by Tactical Air Command to plot the course of Air Force fighter procurement and deployment through the F-15s, the F-16s, and the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) that is scheduled to go into production in the mid-1990s.
Now TAC has come up with a corollary set of signposts called the Tactical Reconnaissance Roadmap to mark the way through modernization of its reconnaissance force in the years ahead.
That roadmap makes no provision for a new aircraft to be dedicated to the penetrating reconnaissance mission as a replacement for the tried and true—but agedRF-4Cs anytime soon. Fiscal realities rule this out.
But when the time comes for a new penetrating reconnaissance aircraft—sometime in the 1990s—TAC expects to put a reconnaissance pod on a fighter then in production and to retain the aircraft’s fighter characteristics as well.
Meanwhile, the RF-4Cs will have to do. The Tactical Reconnaissance Roadmap has big things in store for them by way of the new equipment they will carry. TAC will augment the RF-4Cs with unmanned aircraft to be assigned primarily to reconnaissance of stationary, heavily defended targets.
The manned and unmanned reconnaissance aircraft foreseen in the Tactical Reconnaissance Road-map will carry the same sensors. These will be a far cry from the recon gear the RF-4C carries today.
As TAC Commander Gen. Robert D. Russ puts it: “We have chosen to shift from a film-based system to an electro-optical system. This is the best way to go.”
The RF-4Cs will do away with the bulky cameras and film packages they have relied on since they first began flying in the reconnaissance role. They will be equipped, instead, with a suite of EO sensors, recorders, and devices for transmitting their sensory images via air-to-ground data links.
They will no longer have to return to base with their film—and the laborious, time-consuming process of developing and distributing such film will have become a pain of the past. Moreover, the RF-4Cs, relieved of the need to land following each recon sortie, will be able to refuel in flight for repeated missions if combat situations so demand.
Speeding Up the Process
What it all means is that switching to EO imagery will enable the RF-4Cs—and the reconnaissance drones in the offing—to perform their vital missions in a manner much more gratifying to air and ground commanders, who need the information gathered in the reconnaissance as fast as they can possibly get it.
“The whole idea of our plans for improving tactical reconnaissance is to cut down on the time it takes to get the intelligence information to the users,” explains Maj. Norris Stevens, assistant chief of the Reconnaissance Division in TAC’s Directorate of Requirements. “Right now, with our present equipment, it could take up to nine hours to get the information into users’ hands. With ATARS, it could take as little as twenty minutes, and ATARS will also reduce the manpower, logistics, airlift, and hardware now required to do the job.”
ATARS stands for Advanced Tactical Air Reconnaissance System. It is an umbrella term enfolding the Tactical Air Reconnaissance System (TARS), in which Air Force Systems Command’s Aeronautical Systems Division (ASD) is developing the EO sensors and associated electronics; the Joint Services Imagery Processing System (JSIPS), which is being developed by the Air Force, the Army, and the Marine Corps for handling and distributing the EO imagery on the ground; and the Unmanned Air Reconnaissance (UAR) system, which is the drone being developed by the Navy that will incorporate the Air Force’s EO sensors and will be used by both services.
In terms of logistics, the on-the-ground JSIPS element of the electro-optical tac recon system now in the works will represent a staggering improvement on every count.
Each ground station for processing film in the present system requires 6,000 gallons of water, 400 gallons of chemicals, twenty-eight vans, and, in moving from one theater to another, ten C-141 Star-Lifters. In stark contrast, a JSIPS station will need no water or chemicals whatsoever, only five to seven vans, and only four C- 141s for airlifting—and it will be operated by half the number of people.
There will be no reduction of people as a result of the reinstitution of unmanned aircraft for reconnaissance, a role that drones performed during the Vietnam War. TAC emphasizes that the drones will complement—not replace—the RF-4Cs and whichever converted fighter takes over for the RF-4Cs later on.
“There’s a place for the unmanned systems,” says Lt. Col. Skip Bremer, chief of the reconnaissance operations and programs division of TAC’s Directorate of Operations. “We’re planning on their doing midrange reconnaissance of second-echelon targets, observing stationary or very slow-moving targets, the kinds that we don’t need to send a pilot in a full-up RF-4C to look at.
“The unmanned systems will cost a lot less than manned aircraft to acquire, and their loss would hurt a lot less. But their cost per sortie may be higher because they’ll have a finite number of sorties and there
will always be many reconnaissance targets that we’ll need to go after with manned aircraft and with pilots who can exercise judgment and who can take advantage of mission flexibility.”
It is likely that the drones would be put into play most advantageously prior to the suppression of enemy air defenses, after which the RF-4Cs could operate more safely. But the RF-4Cs would also see their share of action behind the lines while enemy air defenses are still formidable.
Tac Recce Makes It Happen
Tactical reconnaissance is what makes it happen, keeps it going, and finishes it off for air and ground combat commanders from the theater level on down. It is their means of locating and keeping track of targets behind enemy lines and then of assessing the damage inflicted on those targets in the attacks that the initial reconnaissance made possible.
This is why the Air Force’s tactical reconnaissance aircraft assigned to penetrate enemy territory would be the first to go in and the last to come out. Each would go it alone at high risk under heavy pressure to get back quickly with the goods on hostile formations, installations, and movements.
If war breaks out in Europe, for example, USAF’s RF-4Cs from Zweibrucken AB in West Germany and from other forward-deployed locations on the continent would probably be the first to cross—low and fast—the Forward Edge of the Battle Area (FEBA) on sorties that could save or lose the day for NATO troops under fire at the front.
Without adequate tactical reconnaissance, in fact, Allied Command Europe’s doctrine for attacking second-echelon and third-echelon Warsaw Pact forces—a doctrine called FOFA, for Follow-On Forces Attack—would be doomed in its execution.
ACE has always stressed that the first orders of business in executing FOFA are real-time surveillance, target acquisition, and intelligence that are precise enough and timely enough to allow for the destruction and disruption of rear-echelon forces before they can get to the front as reinforcements.
Prime targets in this would be lines of communication and transportation, power stations, command and control centers, switching stations, railway and vehicle loading sites, railway beds, river-crossing areas, computer stations, and the troops, tanks, vehicles, artillery, and missiles on the move.
Penetrating reconnaissance aircraft are indispensable for keeping combat commanders posted about enemy elements in motion and for sizing up the defenses of all targets, whether stationary or mobile.
The name of the game in tac recon is gathering intelligence information and feeding it into the command structure in real time or close to it, thus enabling commanders to make timely decisions for action in the form of effective air strikes and surface missile and artillery strikes.
US air reconnaissance units are doing better at this and will continue to improve. Those in Europe, for example, have been greatly enhanced in just the past several years.
The RF-4Cs at Zweibrucken AB and elsewhere contain cameras in their noses that take forward-oblique photographs, “side-overlapping” photos for three-dimensional effect, and, by panning, pictures that cover 180 degrees of panoramic range.
Other reconnaissance assets are the TR-1s of the 17th Reconnaissance Wing, a unit that was activated in the United Kingdom as recently as 1982 and that reached full strength just two years ago.
The TR-1 is the platform for USAF’s Tactical Reconnaissance System (TRS). It carries synthetic aperture radar and several other types of sensors that transmit images on a digital data link to a ground station for distribution to combat commanders in—at best—fifteen minutes or so.
The success of the TR-1 imaging and data-distribution system served to encourage TAC to forgo film in its RF-4Cs and drones-to-be.
Another much-coveted system for tactical air reconnaissance is coming along fast—the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) now in full-scale development. An Air Force-Army program, Joint STARS is made up of a multimode radar for detecting and tracking enemy forces well beyond the FEBA and for transmitting targeting data to commanders of US and allied attack-aircraft units and artillery and surface-missile units.
The main purpose of Joint STARS, although not the only one, is to make it possible for such units to attack formations of tanks and other armored vehicles as they move toward the front.
Grumman Corp.’s Melbourne Systems Division is now installing subsystems and integrating them aboard the first of two E-8A prototype Joint STARS aircraft—modified Boeing 707-300 cargo carriers. The first E-8A test flight is scheduled for next April.
The Down-and-Dirty Job
As valuable as they are and will be, the TR-1 and the Joint STARS systems are not designed to do the down-and-dirty job of flying behind enemy lines to get a good, close look at what’s there and where it’s going.
That’s the job of the RF-4Cs.
Given the increasingly formidable characteristics and depth of the Warsaw Pact’s air-to-air and surface-to-air weaponry, could the RF-4Cs, built fifteen years ago and more, hack it
“Yes, they could,” responds TAC’s Colonel Bremer. “They haven’t been stressed as much as the fighter versions of the F-4, and they’re being made more survivable in a number of ways. For instance, we’re painting them in gray tones that are harder to spot in the European environment, and their engines are being retuned to reduce smoke. Our tactics are changing, too, to keep up with the threat.”
The RF-4C will have ample room in its nose for the EO sensor suite and all that goes with it, once its cameras and film are removed. This will not be the case, however, with the aircraft that takes its place in the tactical reconnaissance force someday.
Designated the Follow-On Tactical Reconnaissance (FOTR) aircraft, that successor plane will be built as a fighter and, thus, will carry fighter-type sensors and a gun up front. So TAC plans to hang an ATARS EO reconnaissance pod under its fuselage.
Developed by ASD, such a pod has been successfully flight-tested on the centerline of an F-16 at Edwards AFB, Calif., as part of the TARS program’s concept demonstration and validation phase.
The TARS electro-optical suite is made up of an infrared sensor for nighttime reconnaissance, two visual-spectrum sensors for missions in daylight, a low-altitude, wide-field-of-view sensor, and a medium-altitude standoff sensor.
The images that all these sensors collect on missions will be recorded on a digital tape recorder aboard the aircraft for subsequent transmission to intelligence officers and combat commanders.
The new system will incorporate a reconnaissance-management “smart box” that organizes the workings of the sensors and the data recorder and that also serves as redundant circuitry to a backup tape recorder.
With ATARS or any data-link system, reconnaissance aircrews will normally return to friendly skies to hook up with ground stations for data transmission.
This delay will have a plus side, however. It will give the aircrews time to take a look at the images that their sensors have collected, using the system’s “cockpit review” display capability. They will be able to edit their tapes, if the situation requires, in order to transmit only the most pertinent target data to the ground.
Drones won’t be able to do this, of course. They will also be at the mercy of their inertial guidance systems, which will be programmed to steer them on preordained routes over recon targets known to be positioned along those routes. If the guidance systems are a little off, the drones may fly for naught.
Even so, they will be hard for radar to spot and for antiaircraft fire to hit—and they will be, as it were, fearless.
ASD will work with the Navy at upgrading the Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS) for the Navy’s F-14 interceptor and an internal sensor suite for the Navy’s F/A-18 aircraft, courtesy of ASD’s work on the Air Force’s ATARS program.
That program is the first to capitalize fully on ASD’s Avionics Integrity Program (AVIP), which addresses the concerns and the objectives of avionics reliability, maintainability, and producibility as outlined in USAF’s R&M 2000 program.
ASD is expected to select a contractor for the airborne element of ATARS this month. It had requested proposals from ninety companies.
E-Systems has been selected to develop and build the JSIPS ground station in the ATARS program. The Navy expects to select a contractor by the end of this year to supply the reconnaissance drones.
TAC officials emphasize that none of this would be happening without the Tactical Reconnaissance Roadmap that put it into perspective and pointed the way to bringing it off.
“General Russ told us to get it all down on paper so we can see where we want to go and what we want to do, and so we did,” says TAC’s Colonel Bremer. “We melded ATARS with it. In fact, it might be said that ATARS made it possible.
“The roadmap really helped the recon community and the RF-4C specifically. We were faced with fiscal constraints, and we didn’t want to give up the RF-4C. We knew it could be made a lot better. So now, with the roadmap, we know what needs to be done and what can be done with that airplane, and we’re going to keep it for a while.”
Just like the Tactical Fighter Roadmap, the Tactical Reconnaissance Roadmap will be reevaluated each year in the changing contexts of fiscal resources, mission requirements, and threats. It will undoubtedly specify, before too many years go by, which production fighter TAC has in mind to replace the RF-4C in the late 1990s.
Meanwhile, though, the roadmap makes it clear that major changes in the realm of penetrating tactical reconnaissance will have more to do with sensors, processors, and drones than with airplanes themselves—and that the 318 RF-4Cs now composing thirteen Air Force and Air National Guard reconnaissance squadrons will have to hang in there and keep on hacking it.