Listening Out of Sight

RAAF
An EA-18G Growler from No. 6 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force. The RAAF operates 12 Boeing EA-18G Growlers, an EW variant of the US Navy’s two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet. (RAAF)

The importance of airborne intelligence gathering has been underlined by the war in Ukraine and listening almost from a position of anonymity is a capability that fits most scenarios.

The Ukraine War is showing how useful advanced special mission aircraft, such as electronic intelligence (ELINT) platforms are, and that more and more nations are looking to acquire them. What is noticeable is that these assets would once have been the preserve of the United States, but now the market for ELINT aircraft is far more open, with other supply options. The growth in the special mission aircraft market is proliferating with more and more civil airframes, especially business jets, which are being adapted as a cost effective alternative to dedicated military aircraft.

One of the first countries to realise this potential was Sweden. It acquired two heavily-modified Gulfstream IVSP business jets to perform ELINT missions, known as S102B Korpens in Royal Swedish Air Force. These aircraft have been in service since 1992, when they replaced the two TP85s – modified Caravelle airliners formerly belonging to the SAS airline. The S102Bs are equipped with sensors operated by ELINT personnel from the Swedish intelligence agency (Försvarets Radioanstalt) who are capable of eavesdroping, as well as collecting and analysing enemy electronic emissions. The Korpens routinely conduct surveillance missions over the Baltic Sea, flying high and fast in international airspace off the area of interest. The most frequent ‘target’ of the S102B is Kaliningrad Oblast and its Russian installations. For this reason, the Swedish ELINT aircraft are also frequently intercepted by Russian Su-27 Flankers, scrambled from the Kaliningrad exclave’s airbases. Recently, the two aircraft have also been operating on Poland’s eastern border, and NATO seems more than happy to have them on station, with at least one having been on some orbit every single day; a far higher availability than the UK’s Boeing RC-135V/W Airseekers.

Of equal importance is the UK’s lack of ISTAR capability. In 2022 the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) made the regrettable decision to prematurely retire the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) fleet of Raytheon Sentinel R.1 Airborne Stand-off Radar (ASTOR) fixed wing capability which was deployed as part of Operation Herrick in Afghanistan in 2008 and had subsequently been deployed to Operations Shader and Telic in Iraq and the Levant against Daesh and in every other conflict engagement that RAF aircraft have been deployed. Developed from the Bombardier Global Express, the five aircraft conducted approximately 4,870 sorties during the short 14 years that they were in operational service. Had it not already been withdrawn in order to save costs, they would have been in full use assisting in the overall ISTAR related role as part of the West’s role in supporting Ukraine.

AIRSEEKER

The UK replacement for the RAF’s Nimrod R.1 ELINT aircraft which were withdrawn from service in 2011, was the US-sourced RC-135W Rivet Joint, called Airseeker. Three aircraft, developed from the Boeing KC-135 tanker aircraft in the 1960s, were acquired in 2013 at a cost at the time of around $1 billion (£635 million) from USAF stocks. Despite the airframe’s age, there is the possibility of extending the RAF’s Rivet Joints’ “Co-operative Programme” up to 2035 at a projected cost of up to a $1.2 billion (£1 billion) at today’s rate.

The UK MoD acquired four Shadow R.1 aircraft, based on the Beechcraft King Air 350CER, under an Urgent Operational Requirement (UOR) which were delivered to the RAF and operated by No 5 (AC) Squadron in 2009. The Shadow’s high definition electro-optical and electronic sensors complements other platforms and capabilities, helping analysts prepare comprehensive intelligence. Satellite communications links enable information to be downloaded and off-boarded during a mission and the aircraft is also fitted with a comprehensive defensive aids suite (DAS).

The Shadow capability was moved from UOR status into the core MoD Equipment Programme through the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) and the fleet expanded to six Shadow R.1s. The existing Shadow fleet is being upgraded by Raytheon UK, and further expanded to eight aircraft, under the Shadow Mk.2 Upgrade Programme.

RAF Shadow aircraft
RAF Shadow aircraft, based on the King Air 350CER, are being upgraded by Raytheon UK. (David Oliver)

AVSIMAR

The French Navy is procuring up to 12 Falcon 2000LXS aircraft from Dassault Aviation as part of its Albatros Maritime Surveillance and Intervention Aircraft (AVSIMAR) programme. The initial order will be for seven aircraft, in accordance with the multiyear military spending bill (LPM), with deliveries expected to to begin from 2025.

The Falcon 2000 Albatros will be equipped with a multifunction radar under the fuselage, a high-performance optronic turret, observation windows, a Search & Rescue (SAR) kit release system and dedicated communication systems. South Korea is acquiring two Dassault Falcon 2000 modified for ELINT purposes, to replace the Hawker RC-800s now in service.

In August 2021, Germany confirmed plans to acquire a new strategic airborne Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) capability based on a fleet of modified Bombardier Global 6000 business jets having invested some $750 million in the abandoned acquisition of MQ-4C Triton-based ELINT system in 2020. Four Global 6000s will be modified to execute the so-called Persistent German Airborne Surveillance System (PEGASUS) task. It will take to 2028 before the platforms are fully operational and the long existing gap in SIGINT capacity will be filled.

The Global 6000 was adopted for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Project Dolphin with two converted into intelligence surveillance aircraft at Cambridge Airport in the UK by Marshalls Aerospace and QinetiQ. The USAF operates three designated E-11As for the Battlefield Airborne Communications role.

Global 6500
Four Global 6000s will be modified for the Luftwaffe’s Persistent German Airborne Surveillance System (PEGASUS) programme. (Luftwaffe)

ITALYS GULFSTREAMS

Italy is another NATO member to operate dedicated intelligence gathering business jet-based aircraft full of sensors and radars. The training and experience with a leased Gulfstream G550, resulted in a contract to buy two E-550As, which are also based on the Gulfstream G550.

They were delivered in 2016 and 2017 from the manufacturer at Savannah in the United States to Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) which was responsible for the Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) multi-band radar system. The first of which was delivered in March 2022 and both aircraft are operated by the Italian Air Force 14° Stormo (Wing) at Pratica di Mare Air Base.

In 2020, the Italian MoD published its multi-year planning document, one of the priorities of which was a Command, Control, Communications, Computer, Information/Intelligence, Surveillance and TARgeting (C4ISTAR) platform, also to be based on the Gulfstream G550.

As a result, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) approved a possible foreign military sale (FMS) to the Italian government of two Gulfstream G550 CAEW in December 2020, the first of which was delivered in March 2022. IAI has signed contracts with Italy worth some $550 million for the sale of two more G550s, as well support and ground logistics services for the Italian Air Force. They will be similar to the Gulfstream V Nachshon Shavit aircraft that are operated by the Israeli Air Force (IAF). With this new Joint Airborne Multi-Sensor Multi-Mission System (JAMMS), the Italian Air Force has a C4ISTAR platform equipped with modern sensors for real-time sharing of information.

The Italian MoD has also published plans to buy up to eight new Gulfstream SIGINT aircraft and build a maintenance hub for similar aircraft operated by other nations around the Mediterranean. The plans, which were outlined in documents supplied to the Italian parliament, would reinforce Italy’s SIGINT capability as the region becomes a flashpoint for tensions, some based around the war in Ukraine.

At the end of 2022, Finland’s Border Guard shortlisted nine suppliers which could provide the service with modified business jets equipped for ISR missions. The service’s $169 million MVX programme aims to acquire two business jets to replace its ageing fleet of Dornier 228 surveillance aircraft.

Gulfstream G550
Two Italian Air Force E-550As are also based on the Gulfstream G550. (Italian Air Force)

US ELINT

The USAF operates a fleet of ELINT aircraft, including eight RC-135V and nine RC-135W Rivel Joints, three RC-135S Cobra Balls and two RC-135U Combat Sent. An RC-135V had a close encounter with a Chinese J-11 fighter over the South China Sea in December 2022. Although these aircraft are based on ageing airframes with no replacement in sight, their equipment is subject to continual updates. The US Army’s Aerial Reconnaissance and Targeting Exploitation Multi-Mission Intelligence System (ARTEMIS) is its first ever Manned Aerial intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). The aircraft was officially revealed in 2020, by the Army’s Program Executive Office that revealed that it provides high-altitude sensing capabilities against near peer adversaries and bridges gaps in the Multi Domain Operations (MDO) mission. The joint investment between the Army and industry partners started in May 2019 and recently completed aircraft and sensor system engineering, airworthiness qualification, information assurance accreditation, integration and testing requirements and deployed to US Indo-Pacific Command.

J-11B and RC-135V
A USAF RC-135V seen in close formation from a PLAAF J-11B over the South China Sea. (PLA)

ARTEMIS is contractor-owned, contractor operated (COCO) but US personnel will have the opportunity to operate both the mission equipment in the back of the aircraft as well as the platform itself in order to provide feedback that will inform future development efforts for follow-on programmes. The US Army awarded a contract to Leidos in November 2019 to build two ARTEMIS using a Bombardier Challenger 650 business jets.

ARTEMIS is equipped with a High-Accuracy Detection and Exploitation System (HADES) which is a sensor suite part of the Army Multi-Domain Sensing System (MDSS) intended to address the US Army’s deep sensing requirement by providing platform agnostic sensors that support MDOs, including Large Scale Ground Combat Operations, and fill sensing gaps for Indicators and Warnings, Long-Range Precision Fire targeting and Situational Understanding. These will allow stand-off operations to detect, locate, identify and track critical targets for the ground commander. Currently, sensor priorities for HADES are focused on ELINT, COMINT and Radio Assisted Detection and Ranging (RADAR).

HADES should combine, electronic and communication intelligence receivers as well as ground-scanning radar to detect and pinpoint enemy emissions and targets, from significant distances. Although the scope of the missions the ARTEMIS aircraft are flying in this period is unknown, these should be part of a Proof Of Concept of the technology: the US Army plans to field around 10 larger Artemis planes, possibly based on the Boeing P-8 or G550 airframes, starting in 2028. It is likely assessing some of the platform’s performance, ahead of the planned Sensor Fly-off meant to evaluate sensor performance and limitations in the future.

ARTEMIS was deployed to Europe to support the US Army’s Defender exercise in 2020 and carried out missions over Georgia and Abkhazia, after being deployed to Kadena in Okinawa.

Japan is one of the few countries that have modified a military transport aircraft for ELINT rather than a business jet. An Electronic Intelligence variant of the Kawasaki C-2, a single RC-2, is being operated from Iruma Air Base, north of western Tokyo, Japan. Along with the Japan Air Self- Defense Force’s (JASDF) YS-11EB ELINT aircraft and single Kawasaki C-1 which entered service in June 1986 equipped with the domestic XJ/ALQ-5 ECM and Toshiba ELINT systems, will be replaced by the RC-2.

the Kawasaki C-2
A single Electronic Intelligence variant of the Kawasaki C-2, is operated by the JASDF as an RC-2. (JASDF)

China is seen as an economic and strategic threat to Japan and other countries in the south Pacific. It is substantially building up its military forces and harassing Taiwan. However, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operates only a small number of intelligence gathering variants of the Shaanxi Y-8 while the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) ELINT capability is almost non existent, comprising only four modified Russian Tu-154M transport aircraft.

There are few specialised electronic warfare (EW) variants of modern fighter aircraft, the exceptions being the Panavia Tornado ECR and the Boeing EA-18G Growler.

Operated by Germany and Italy, the Electronic Combat/Reconnaissance (ECR) is a Tornado variant devoted to Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) missions. The first of 35 aircraft were delivered to the German Luftwaffe in 1990 equipped with Raytheon AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles. Twenty remain in service.

The 155th Squadron of the 50th Wing at Piacenza, was designated as the first squadron of the Italian Air Force to be dedicated to the primary SEAD mission, being equipped with 16 ECR EA-200Bs armed with AGM-88 HARM towards the end of 1994. As the Italian Air Force planned to retain the Tornado fleet until at least 2025, Alenia Aeronautica along with Selenia were contracted to upgrade a total of 58 Tornados, including 15 ECR versions. The upgraded Tornado ECR-M version included several sub-systems and functionality additions and modifications to the on-board systems, avionics equipment and mission software.

Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense System and Hensoldt will collaborate to offer a podded escort jammer to the Luftwaffe. The service has a requirement for an electronic attack pod to equip 15 new Eurofighter Typhoon ECR electronic warfare aircraft that will replace the Tornado ECRs by 2030. Hensoldt’s ‘Kalaetron’ family is already being used in self-protection and signals intelligence systems by the German Armed Forces. The core elements of the system are a fully digitalised, broadband receiver, an electronically controllable antenna and a condensed structure of the electronic components. These elements allow the SIGINT equipment to be incorporated into a compact pod system that can be easily integrated into flying platforms.

The Boeing EA-18G Growler is a carrier-based electronic warfare variant of the two-seat F/A-18F Super Hornet that replaced the Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowlers in US Navy service. The first of 158 EA-18Gs entered operational service in late 2009 and Australia also purchased 12 EA-18Gs, which entered service with the Royal Australian Air Force in 2017.

The PLAAF operates a small number of an EW variant of the J-10D Firebird which is identified by a spine on the central airframe containing electronic countermeasure and EW systems

While NATO ELINT aircraft are playing crucial role in monitoring Russian forces during their less than successful invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Air Force, like that of China’s, has to rely on a Soviet-era fleet of Il-20M and Il-22PP aircraft developed from the Il-18 turboprop airliner in the 1970s.

The capability of seeing and hearing your enemy is a determining factor in the gaining the upper hand in any battlefield scenario, and intelligence gathering aircraft are set to play an even more important role for air and land forces in future conflicts.

by David Oliver