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Streetly M, Jun-2011. The World's SIGINT Aircraft, The Journal of Electronic Defense Vol. 34 No. 6

Streetly M, Jun-2011. The World's SIGINT Aircraft, The Journal of Electronic Defense Vol. 34 No. 6

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Published by: Foro Militar General on Nov 12, 2012
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reserved


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When considering the state of currentairborne signals intelligence (SIGINT),as good a starting point as any is con-text. When this writer was a bright-eyedneophyte in the late 1970s, airborneSIGINT was probably the blackest of theblack arts. The inextricable link be-tween SIGINT and the Cold War and itsplace in national intelligence gatheringmeant that it was not a subject for opendiscussion other than in the context of tabloid-style “spy plane” stories. Again,the target set was essentially formalized(with air defense networks being highon the list) and the levels of classifica-tion were such as to preclude wide dis-semination. That this was beginning tobe seen as a major stumbling block hadbeen demonstrated by the conflict inSoutheast Asia, where vital informationhad been withheld from the war fightersbecause of compartmentalization andwho was and who was not in the loop.Just as important wasthe level of availabletechnology, with a typi-cal high-end SIGINTplatform taking theform of a bespoke,hardwired sys-tem that wasprimarilyanalog,maintenance heavy and frequentlymanual in operation. Again, the hard-ware was big and heavy, while the tar-get set was largely made-up of fixedfrequency emitters that, in the radarcontext, relied on mechanical scanning.Techniques such as frequency agility,digitization and electronic scanning(both passive and active) were at bestin their early stages of development andperhaps more importantly, the militarytargets being looked at were essentiallyconventional in terms of structure andimplementation. Looking specificallyat communications, conventional radiolinks predominated with satellite com-munications and (particularly) cellulartelephone technology either just begin-ning to appear or still being but a gleamin a designer’s eye.Come up to date, and the SIGINTworld has been turned upside down. Onthe operational side, the Cold War veri-ties have been swept away to be replacedby both conventional and asymmetricthreats, with the latter making use of non-conventional communications andcommand and control tools such as celland satellite phones. Perhaps more im-portantly, the threat has in part movedoff the bat-tlefield and into towns and cities wherea new generation of well educated andequipped activists are prepared to diefor a cause and to use mass killing asa means to an end. In the fight againsthomeland terrorism, communicationsintercept has become both a vital tooland one that sometimes sits uncomfort-ably alongside the traditional civil lib-erties that the western world cherishes.On the technology front, advances indigitization, miniaturization, reliability(solid-state and the like) and processinghave all come together to create muchmore flexible SIGINT architectures thatfacilitate plug and play, virtually on thefly updating and which increasingly fea-ture data hand-off capabilities in real-or close to real-time. Real-time datahand-off (combined with a more openapproach to who sees what) is probablythe real game changer and one that isabsolutely vital in meeting today’s bat-tlefield and homeland security needs.Elsewhere in the described mix, currentsatellite link and processing technologytogether with miniaturization and im-proved reliability have opened the doorto unmanned aircraft system (UAS) SI-GINT platforms
 As the world gets more dangerous, the internationaldemand of SIGINT capabilities continues to expand
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that apart from anything else, makepossible persistent surveillance that ismoving towards operations measured inweeks or even months.
If the foregoing is the context inwhich airborne SIGINT functions,what of its future? Rightly or wrongly,this writer believes that in the shortto medium term, the sort of high-endmanned SIGINT platforms such as “RivetJoint” will continue to figure large dueto their capabilities (particularly theirability to undertake onboard data pro-cessing), their responsiveness and op-erational flexibility and, put simply, theprestige associated with being able toafford and operate such aircraft. Afford-ability is another key driver, with moreand more countries wanting an airborneSIGINT capability and even big defensespenders like the US having to addressan increasingly hostile budgetary envi-ronment. In a world where the defensebudget trend is universally down, thiswriter sees a significant market for SI-GINT systems that are an adjunct toanother mission, that can be rolled onand off a non-dedicated platform or arecombined with other sensors, such aselectro-optical (EO) imagers, to createarchitectures that are capable of cross-cueing and/or undertaking a range of missions previously carried out by mul-tiple platforms with discrete roles.This ability to multi-task can also beseen in the UAS world, where fixed-wing,rotary and lighter-than-air systems areemerging that are capable of carryingsurveillance radars, SIGINT receivers andEO sensors, with the payloads being op-erated via datalink and/or satellite andmaking use of ground-based data pro-cessing. While such an approach works,its downside is the bandwidth neededto down-link acquired data and up-linkcommands. Here, one solution (whichalso addresses persistence) may be high-altitude, optionally manned airships(such as the USAF’s proposed “Blue Devil”Block II) that are large enough to houseboth the necessary sensors and a process-ing suite capable of reducing their dataoutput to more manageable levels.Multi-tasking is also likely to pro-mote roll-on/roll-off capabilities wherea standard air vehicle (say, a transportsuch as the C-130) can be converted tobecome a SIGINT platform when requiredbefore reverting back to its original role.An example of such an approach is theUS Air National Guard’s C-130 “SeniorScout” platform that takes a minimallymodified Hercules transport aircraftand equips it with an operator’s shelterin the cargo hold and antenna packagesthat are attached to its main undercar-riage doors, paratroop doors, wingtipsand tailcone, with the whole change outbeing executable within a minimum of 12 hours. Lockheed Martin (the “SeniorScout’s” original contractor) has gone
In addition to programs in the US and UK, airborne SIGINT capabilitiesare known to be operated by the following countries:Australia: putative C-130 and Orion COMINT platformsBrazil: R-35AM programChile: 2 × Petrel Beta (status uncertain)China: an unknown number of Y-8- and Tu-154-based platformsEgypt: 2 × Beech 1900C-1 and 2 × EC-130Finland: 1 × Fokker F27 (being replaced by a modified C-295M)France: 2 × C.160G GabrielIndia: 1 × Boeing 707 (to be replaced)Iran: possibly 1 × IBEX C-130Israel: 3 × Gulfstream GV Shavit and 7 × RC-12D/KItaly: 1 × G222VSJapan: 5 × EP-3 and 4 × YS-11EBSouth Korea: 4 × Hawker 800SIG (to be replaced)Poland: 2 × Procjon W-3 helicoptersRussia: an unknown number of Il-20MsSaudi Arabia: 2 × RE-3A/BSingapore: 1 × C-130 and (possibly) 1 × Fokker 50Spain: 1 × Boeing 707Sweden: 2 × S 102 B KorpenTaiwan: 1 ×C-130HEThailand: 2 × Arava 201s (status uncertain).
By Martin Streetly 
By Martin Streetly 
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on to capitalize on both this conceptand modern open plug-and-play archi-tectures to create its Dragon family of platform agnostic intelligence, surveil-lance and reconnaissance (ISR) solu-tions. Ranging in size from UAS podsto roll-on/roll-off systems for aircraftsuch as the C-130 and C-295 transports,Dragon sensor suites can include com-munications intelligence and electronicintelligence (COMINT/ELINT) systems,radars, EO imagers (including wide areasurveillance equipments) and measure-ment and signature intelligence (MAS-INT) sensors, with the number and typesof sensors being mixed and matched tomeet the specific requirement. Withinthe specific SIGINT field, Finland’s on-going SIGINT C-295M “ferret” project isthe first known Dragon series solutionto have been sold.
Staying in the Nordic region, Swe-den’s Saab has also developed a roll-on/roll-off SIGINT solution under the des-ignation AIRTRACER FLEX. Suitable foraircraft such as the C-130, AIRTRACERFLEX makes use of a so-called crew con-tainer which is inserted into the hostaircraft’s cargo bay and which housessix operators, each of whom sits at aworkstation that features three dis-play screens. Overall, the architectureprovides integrated COMINT and ELINT,Electronic Support Measures (ESM) andself-protection capabilities, real-timeonboard analysis, emitter geo-locationand a dedicated antenna array. Else-where, Saab offers the AIRTRACER as acustomized solution aboard a custom-er’s choice of aircraft or as a completepackage mounted in its own Saab 2000regional airliner airframe. In the lat-ter application, ELINT and ESM/radarthreat warning are provided by Saab’s0.7- to 40-GHz band HES-21 sub-systemthat features digital receiver technol-ogy and interferometric direction-find-ing capabilities.Staying in Europe, the French armof the Thales conglomerate has also ad-dressed multiple platform use via an au-tonomous podded ELINT system that canbe carried by a C-130 transport duringthe course of its regular missions. Pack-aged in an external fuel tank envelope,the system covers the 0.5- to 18-GHzband (expandable to 0.1 to 40 GHz) andcan identify, finger print and geolocateemitters and record their parametricdata for post-mission analysis. As such,the architecture features digital receiv-ers and interferometric direction-find-ing and requires no crew interventionand minimal interfacing with its host.
That affordability (a relative termwhen applied to sensor systems in gen-eral) can successfully be combined withan effective operational multi-sensorsystem as illustrated by the rise of theMC-12W “Liberty” system. Born out of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ frus-tration with the lack of airborne ISRcapability in Southwest Asia, the KingAir-based MC-12W was brought in justabout on time (use of pre-used airframesfor the first seven aircraft requiredstandardization that took longer than
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