In the previous two posts on ISTAR the general context and relationship between the collectors and ‘back office’ described. In the next few posts I am going to look at the airborne aspects of ISTAR, the collectors. With the new concept of Combat ISTAR some of these collectors might also be armed to attack targets of opportunity.
Signals intelligence is extremely complex and often at the cutting edge of science and technology. It seeks to provide intelligence from various emitters; cell phones, radio systems and radar for example. There are a number of variations, communications intelligence analyses the source and content of messages, pattern analysis seeks to obtain information from trends over a period of time and electronic intelligence analyses non communications traffic, radar for example.
SIGINT has value in all stages of an operation but is particularly valuable in counter insurgency operations and the mystique surrounding its capabilities can also have a distinct deterrent effect, although if targets resort to passing messages by combat carrier pigeon SIGINT may have a little less utility!
Nimrod R. Mk1/Airseeker
Providing theatre level SIGINT was the Nimrod R.1’s of 51 Squadron RAF, in service since 1974, although they have of course been continually updated since then.
There was already a project underway to look at options for its replacement before the Nimrod airworthiness issue. The project was called Helix and the 2010 NAO Major Project Report defines the requirement as;
Project Helix seeks to sustain the UK’s airborne electronic surveillance capability, currently provided by the Nimrod R1 aircraft and associated ground elements, against an evolving and increasingly complex target set up to 2025. It will provide a rapidly deployable capability to support operations where it will be able to collect, analyse, fuse and disseminate a coherent and readily interpretable electronic surveillance picture in support of national, joint and coalition operations. This information will support targeting and combat identification.
The project achieved initial gate approval in 2003 and a competitive assessment phase was resulted in L-3 becoming the preferred bidder in 2009, about the same time the first of the three R1’s was retired.
Parallel to this the decision was made to obtain three US RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft which is the USAF’s broad equivalent to the R1. The initial reaction was outrage, the R1 was reportedly much more versatile and capable, the Rivet Joint is focussed on communications intelligence for example, but the communications intelligence capability has been the most used and this is likely to continue.
The Rivet Joint uses the highest of high technology equipment and the UK will be the only operator other than the US, the degree of trust implicit in this deal is perhaps a sign of the much maligned special relationship. It has also been reported that some UK specific equipment, QinetiQ Tigershark for example, will be incorporated and that this will likely be rolled out across the USAF fleet.
It is not clear if the UK Rivet Joints will be equipped with an inflight refuelling probe and therefore able to receive fuel from UK tankers but the basic aircraft does have significant range and endurance. Expected to be in service in 2014, all three will be based at RAF Waddington, 4 sets of crews will begin work up training and joint operations this year.
Whilst many commentators have been frothing about the age of the airframes (they will effectively be zero lifed) the real jewel in the deal is the ongoing support arrangements. The three RAF aircraft will be maintained as a joint fleet and every 4 years until 2025 the aircraft will be returned to the US for a complete strip down, overhaul and technology refresh. Significantly, under a capability improvement programme, the RAF aircraft will benefit from the same technology upgrades as the US version.
It is a shame we could not use an airframe that is common with others in the RAF but this is the bargain of the decade, especially when one considers the spiral developments that will be delivered in due course. We are facing a capability gap for a few years but post 2014 the UK will have an excellent signals intelligence capability that is fully aligned with our principal ally.
Project HELIX rejected the Nimrod MRA4 airframe because of space and power issues and in an ideal world we would have transferred the existing R1 equipment/HELIX upgrades into a common airframe like the A330 but as a low cost way of achieving a great deal, the lack of commonality is a pill worth swallowing. Having said that, the airframe is the same as the E3 Sentry so there is some commonality and existing support arrangements.
3 will be delivered which if course isn’t enough but capacity issues may prevent it growing beyond that, the operators of 51sqn are extraordinarily skilled and experienced and the training pipeline cannot simply be increased overnight.
The cost of the deal is approximately £750 million and is now called Airseeker.
Hawker Beechcraft King Air
The UK already operates a number of King Airs both in training and front line roles, the RAF’s Shadow R1 and MFTS 350ER’s for rear crew training for example. The Army Air Corps also operate a small number of tactical SIGINT aircraft that are likely to be similarly fitted to the US RC-12 Guard Rail.
With my earlier suggestion of transitioning all aviation assets to the RAF, these would be transferred.
SIGINT and especially COMINT is gaining more significance at a tactical level and whilst the Rivet Joint will provide a serious level of capability we will have only three and would rightly be tasked for higher level missions. A lower level tactical capability is needed beyond the limited numbers we have.
With the troubled progress of the US joint Aerial Common Sensor programme the US Army (the operators of the Guard Rail) have initiated an upgrade programme called RC-12x. This will bring all their aircraft up to a common standard and although it is based on the smaller 200 series, for commonality, space and performance reasons we should ideally be using the 350ER.
A force of 6 aircraft would provide a valuable capability, able to operate in support of an enduring deployment or special forces and complimenting perfectly the Shadow R1’s (more of which later)
## Other posts in this series ##