• Credit: E-spaces
    Credit: E-spaces

Over the next decade the ADF and intelligence community will benefit from an exponential increase in the volume and quality of regional ISREW information.

Julian Kerr | Sydney

Contributing to this will be the Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance and Electronic Warfare (ISREW) capabilities of the EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, F-35A Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and Wedgetail E-7A airborne early warning and control platform – the latter already well-established in service – supplemented in the ISR role by the armed medium altitude UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) whose intended acquisition was disclosed in February’s Defence White Paper.

The Growler can reportedly intercept frequencies not only from radars but cell phones, allowing two adjacent Growlers to measure the transmission times from the air to the ground and pinpoint a small area where a target might be located.

The F-35A will not only be capable of jamming communications and suppressing radars, but also of recommending to its pilot which of those targets to attack and whether to use kinetic or electronic means.Nevertheless the bulk of the enhanced airborne ISREW take will be harvested by 15 Boeing P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, the first of which will be operational around 2018; up to five Gulfstream G550 business jets modified for the EW role that will be available in the early 2020s; and seven Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton high altitude, long endurance UAVs that will begin to enter service around 2020.


"Separating ISR from EW capabilities is a sensitive issue."


The Tritons will perform the bulk of the high-altitude broad area surveillance mission over Australia’s vast northern maritime approaches and littoral regions, freeing up the manned P-8As for dedicated anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, search and rescue response and electronic intelligence missions.

Group Captain Guy Adams, the RAAF’s Director Unmanned Aerial Systems, confirms the intention with all three platforms is to maintain a high level of interoperability with the US.

In US service both Triton and Poseidon are operated by the US Navy and focus on the support of US battle groups at sea, while in Australian service both platforms will operate more independently “but with an understanding of what our navy will need”.

Separating ISR from EW capabilities is a sensitive issue, and GPCAPT Adams simply states that all four activities generate information that is turned into an intelligence product.

(Author’s note: In the context of the MQ-4C, P-8A and G550, EW could probably more accurately be described as SIGINT (signals intelligence) which in turn breaks down to COMINT – gained through the interception of foreign communications, and ELINT – derived from the interception of non-communication electromagnetic signals, most notably radar).

Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Leo Davies was more forthcoming earlier this year when he asked rhetorically whether a P-8A had an ISR element.

“Yes. Can it listen to electronic spectrum? Yes. But it’s not designed to do that. And then are you able to access that, while it’s doing anti-submarine warfare, or a surface patrol?

“Wedgetail certainly has an ISR element to it, an EW element to it. JSF will; Growler certainly does. Triton will have an element. The bit at the moment is we don’t have a way to coordinate or orchestrate that ISR piece.”

This, it appears, is the role envisaged for the G550s – “the conductor of the orchestra, if you like, in an ISR sense”, the CAF commented.

So what are the players’ abilities? Notwithstanding the Air Marshal’s comments, the ability of the P-8A’s electronic support measures (ESM) to search for, intercept, identify and locate other countries’ radar and radio communications is likely to be a vital and ongoing element of the ADF’s ISR/EW portfolio.

Given that two of the RAAF’s original 18-strong AP-3C fleet were converted around 2000 to the EP-3 signals intelligence configuration, the possibility of additional SIGINT equipment being deployed in the Poseidons as a standard fit should not be discounted.

While Triton is intended to provide persistent maritime surveillance and reconnaissance coverage of wide oceanographic and littoral zones at a mission radius of 2,000 nautical miles, in USN service it will also replace in part the SIGINT role of the USN’s ageing EP-3E Aries II reconnaissance aircraft.

The Triton’s MTS-B multispectral targeting system performs auto-target tracking and produces high resolution imagery at multiple field-of-views and full motion video. The AN/ZLQ-1 ESM system uses specific emitter identification to track and detect emitters of interest.

Phased upgrades for Triton’s multi-intelligence capabilities in ISR and targeting are referred to in USN 2016 budget justification papers, together with development assets for high band and low band SIGINT systems.

With GPCAPT Adams confirming the RAAF’s intention to ensure as much commonality as possible with USN Triton developments, such enhancements to the platform’s ISREW capabilities are likely to find an early home on the Australian MQ-4C fleet. Incremental upgrades to maintain commonality and interoperability with US-developed EW systems were specifically mentioned in the Defence White Paper’s reference to the G550s that will be acquired “to substantially enhance electronic warfare support to naval, air and land forces for operations in electromagnetic environments manipulated by hostile forces”.

Credit: E-spacesCredit: E-Spaces

Understandably, details of the G550s’ EW capabilities are unlikely to reach the public domain, but the Chief of Air Force has confirmed that unlike the other airborne assets, the G550s will be dedicated solely to the ISR/EW role and provide what he described as a “multiplying effect”. While the White Paper refers to the G550 as having the operating cost, range and endurance benefits of a commercial airframe – on which it is based – the total cost in the Defence Integrated Investment Program for “long range electronic warfare support aircraft”, presumably the acquisition and modification of up to five G550s, is set at a hefty $2-3 billion, providing plenty of financial wriggle room. According to Gulfstream, the G550 features an endurance of more than 15 hours, a cruise speed of 0.8 Mach and a service ceiling of 51,000 ft. Sources note this would provide a line of sight communications and SIGINT interception range of about 400 km.

This exceptional performance coupled with high-powered sensors will provide significant operational flexibility, including the ability to remain beyond the range of emerging anti-access and area denial threats such as long-range fighters and ground-based air defence systems.

The only known user to date of the G550 in the SIGINT role is the Israeli Air Force (IAF), which in 2005 took delivery of the first of three so-called Special Electronic Mission Aircraft (SEMA).

The Israeli SEMA platforms were modified for their SIGINT role by both Gulfstream and IAI Elta. Visible changes included modifications to the external outer mold line, installation of a gondola under the forward fuselage, an extensive antenna farm, and common data link fairings.

Defence says the RAAF G550s will be acquired and converted by L3 Communications Mission Integration in Texas, although it’s unlikely that the initial contract of US$93 million for three aircraft involves the supply, installation and integration of specialised mission systems in addition to the acquisition cost and interior and exterior modifications.

International experience

Israel is generally regarded as being at the cutting edge of SIGINT, and the capabilities likely to be provided by Australia’s G550s can be broadly ascertained from open source information on the IAI-Elta ELI 3001 Airborne Integrated Signal Intelligence System (AISIS) that equips the IAF’s SEMA aircraft.

AISIS incorporates sensors which offer a high probability of interception in the COMINT frequency range of 30-1200 MHz and the ELINT frequency range of 0.5-18 GHz.

Automated processes include high speed scan and search within frequency bands of interest according to a preprogrammed scan regime. AISIS also features precise signal acquisition parameter measurements and data reduction by filtration and signal type classification, while signal direction of arrival measurements enable the fast geo-location of transmitting targets.

Additional processes include analysis of new/unknown signals, recording and playback, real time monitoring and transcribing, creation of a real time situational awareness picture, dissemination of intelligence reports to designated users, and the management and handling of radar libraries and frequency scan tables.

With a communications suite that includes SATCOM and Line of Sight microwave datalinks and HF, VHF and UHF air-to-air and air-to-ground radio, the AISIS system can be operated by onboard personnel, remotely from the ground, or by a combination of the two.

The ground segment includes a wide area network (WAN) for communication with COMINT and ELINT ‘centres’, and links to external intelligence customers.

For Australia, the key asset that will draw the various capabilities together and provide intelligence product is the Distributed Ground Station – Australia (DGS-A), a facility approved by then CAF Geoff Brown in July 2014.Subsequently established at RAAF Edinburgh, the DGS-AUS is staffed by air intelligence officers working alongside geospatial and SIGINT specialists, and achieved Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in January this year. According to a July 2014 article in Air Force News, IOC was to include the ability to use information from “AP-3C EW”.

The DGS-A facility is intended to ingest information from numerous ADF and allied imagery and SIGINT assets and combine it with strategic reference material from the Australian intelligence community to improve commanders’ situational awareness.

Full operational capability is scheduled for 2017, when a partnering arrangement will see DGS-A also undertake the processing, exploitation and dissemination of US Air Force ISR material – a further confirmation of the closeness of the relationship between the two allies in the ISREW space.


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