Avantgarde EW approaches are being propelled by the revival of great power competition between the US-led Western alliance and so-called ‘near-peer’ adversaries like the People’s Republic of China and Russia.
Australia’s launch of a T-Minus Engineering DART rocket carrying a Radio Frequency (RF) sensing payload developed by DEWC is a good illustration of this trend. On 19th September, a test flight of the ensemble was made from South Australia’s Koonibba Rocket Range. T-Minus Engineering’s official literature states that the DART can reach altitudes of up to 65 nautical miles (120 kilometres). Such altitudes have insufficient air density for balloons or aerostats to loiter but too high a density for satellites to orbit.
An Australian Department of Defence (DOD) spokesperson told Armada that the RF sensing payload used during the test could find transmissions on a frequency of 5.625 gigahertz. This was designed to detect weather radars used by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. A rudimentary machine-learning algorithm was included in the sensor to assist the sensor’s detection of this apparatus.
The altitudes which the DART rocket can reach would afford an RF sensing payload an impressive field-of-view. As a ballpark figure, the payload could detect emitters across a 6.3 million square kilometre (2.4 million square mile) area. In theory, the rocket could be launched to its maximum altitude. The RF sensor could take then several ‘snapshots’ of the emitters in its field-of-view. Emitters of interest could then be investigated further by airborne, sea-based or land-based signals intelligence systems. The DART rocket/RF sensor combination could be used for strategic/operational level signals intelligence gathering.
The spokesperson continued that the DART rocket forms part of the DOD’s High Altitude Programme. This is “exploring the delivery and employment of capabilities in the upper atmosphere using sub-orbital rockets and high-altitude balloons” to enhance situational awareness. The recent launch “was to assess the design requirements of low cost, expendable sensors that can survive and operate effectively in harsh temperatures, gravity and vibration environments.”
The DOD sees the DART rocket as a stepping-stone for the department “to explore how advanced rapidly-deployable networked sensors can be employed to provide information across (DOD communications networks).” The initiative will also help the DOD to deepen its understanding of how high-altitude environments affect sensor performance.
Any future capability developed from these efforts could feed into the DOD’s Plan Jericho. According to the Royal Australian Air Force, Plan Jericho will see the fusion of advanced sensors, machine learning and cloud computing to improve how the RAAF collects and shares intelligence: “Multiple data sources provided by massed advanced sensors” are integral to Plan Jericho.
Whether the DART rocket will metamorphosise into a programme of record is uncertain: “There are currently insufficient data available to enter a programme of record.” However, data gathered during the experiment could help “inform decisions in programmes of record in the air and space domains, such as integrated air and missile defence and space domain awareness.”