Seeking a Triple-Threat Sensor

Nov. 1, 2002

The new fleet of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance aircraft is taking shape on Air Force drawing boards and is planned for introduction at the beginning of the next decade. The aircraft will embody new technology that will quicken the process of finding and destroying mobile targets and will be closely matched to a new vision of how the Air Force will operate in the future.

The platform is called the Multisensor Command and Control Aircraft, or MC2A. Service officials hope it will serve as a single-type replacement for today’s E-3 AWACS air battle controller, E-8 Joint STARS ground target surveillance aircraft, and perhaps even the RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence platform.

These sensor aircraft are today’s principal Low-Density, High-Demand systems that regional combatant commanders insist on but which are in chronically short supply. However, they are expected to become difficult and costly to maintain in the coming decade. As their 707- and C-135-based airframes get older, their electronic components will become hard to replace due to what is called the “vanishing vendor” syndrome: Suppliers go out of business over the life of the platform or switch to more modern products.

The MC2A is the brainchild of Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force Chief of Staff, who several years ago envisioned a single “common widebody” replacement for the large aircraft in today’s ISR fleet. More than hoping to simply save money by consolidating airframes, Jumper also saw the new airplane serving as an adjunct to the air operations center in future wars, as not only a multisensor platform but also as the in-theater battle controller.

In this role, the common ISR airplane would be pivotal in the Global Strike Task Force concept, which calls for Air Force aircraft to “kick down the door” into a future theater of war by swiftly destroying enemy anti-access capabilities. These include air defenses, theater ballistic missiles, and weapons of mass destruction that could hold US forces at bay.

Pivotal Element

The MC2A would fly into the theater as part of the Global Strike Task Force air armada, controlling not only strike and fighter aircraft but also unmanned combat and sensor vehicles–such as Global Hawks and Predators.

This common widebody would be able to see the ground situation in fine-toothed detail and superimpose on it the unfolding aerial battle, overlaying threats and automatically highlighting time-critical targets. It would be connected to space-based Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance assets as well as ground units and build a comprehensive picture of the war in near real time.

Further, the MC2A would translate the operational-level orders of the Joint Force Air Component Commander into tactical delegation of targets to aircraft.

Plans currently call for a fleet of as many as 55 of the Multisensor Command and Control Aircraft, though production numbers are at this point highly speculative. A great deal of conceptual and technological work must first be done to assess whether a two- or three-in-one airplane is even feasible.

The common widebody answers not only the global strike concept but also Air Force Secretary James G. Roche’s edict that “we will never again build a single-mission aircraft.” From now on, the service wants aircraft with the flexibility to perform a variety of missions under a range of conditions.

The new project will also be the centerpiece of what Jumper calls “the horizontal integration of manned, unmanned, and space” platforms. By serving as the main battlefield node of information, the MC2A will collect data from its own sensors, fuse it with data collected from fighters, unmanned vehicles, and satellites, and create a coherent picture of the air war. This in turn will be passed to aircraft on missions as well as to the air commander to help him plan and conduct operations.

Air Combat Command initially pursued the project as a Joint STARS update, which called for a substantial upgrade to the E-8’s main radar. At Jumper’s urging, ACC expanded the project to look at the possibility of performing both the AWACS function and the E-8 ground moving target indicator function on the same platform. Additionally, the service set the ability to spot and track cruise missiles as a basic program requirement.

Less than two years after the initial vision, the common ISR project is a going concern. It has an operational requirement, a platform and contractors selected, a timetable, experimental experience, and a budget. After an extensive analysis of alternatives, ACC settled on the Boeing 767-400ER as the preferred commercial, off-the-shelf airframe on which to base the MC2A.

Thinking Long Term

Jumper decided it was time to transition from the 1950’s-vintage 707 design to a more modern type, according to Robert Smart, the Air Force’s deputy director for information dominance systems.

“General Jumper … was really convinced that the 707 platform was not giving us the long-term capability,” Smart noted. “The maintenance was becoming an issue. Engines have been an issue.” Smart said Jumper told the program office that “now is the time to embrace a longer-term vision for the Air Force, move off of the 707 platform,” and transition to “a multiplatform program.”

Several airliners were considered, but the 767 had a leg up on the competition because it had already been converted to AWACS use for the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force. The 767 is also viewed as the most likely successor to the KC-135 for the air refueling mission.

The project has gotten off to a rocky start with Congress. There are four elements that have similar names and common budget line items. This has caused considerable confusion on Capitol Hill.

The first element is the MC2A project itself, which is the developmental program aimed at creating a new airborne ISR airplane. By 2012 the Air Force would like to acquire an initial “orbit” of four aircraft–necessary to maintain 24-hour-a-day watch over the battlefield–plus a fifth airplane dedicated as a test bed.

Next is the similarly named Multisensor Command and Control Constellation. Its purpose is to network existing ISR systems, as well as new systems, including the MC2A aircraft, space systems, and unmanned aerial vehicles, to create what Jumper calls the “machine-to-machine interfaces” necessary to speed up the transfer of information among ISR platforms and “shooter” aircraft.

The Air Force also has a 707 aircraft–dubbed the MC2A-X or Paul Revere–that is being used to experiment with battle management concepts and hardware, some of which could be applied to the MC2A project. The X aircraft is not a prototype for the new system because the older 707 is a different shape than the 767 so could not be used to deconflict interference from the various antennas and arrays.

The Air Force must buy an “empty” 767 to begin the form, fit, and function design process for the new multisensor airplane and to conduct tests for potential interference. Doing this work on a 707 won’t work, said Smart.

Lawmakers zeroed funding for a 767 from the Air Force’s Fiscal 2003 budget request, believing erroneously that the 707 Paul Revere could serve as the test bed. The service was unable to reverse the decision in the House-Senate budget conference. Meanwhile, USAF held talks with Boeing about possibly paying for the 767 test bed in several annual installments.

The various labeling problems “cost us a bit of confusion on the Hill,” Smart said.

He said the solution may be to break these two programs out into their own separate budget line items. “They’re both very important, individually,” Smart asserted. “They both deserve their own program element.”

According to Smart, the Air Force must begin integration work next year to have the new common ISR aircraft ready in time for 2012. The 767 test bed is an “absolute necessity … in ’03,” he said.

The Contracting Issue

Yet another controversial aspect of the program is the way in which it may be acquired. So far, the Air Force has elected to pursue the common widebody as a series of sole-source initiatives with the companies that have done such projects in the past. Contractors with similar capabilities have complained of being shut out of what could be many billions of dollars’ worth of business.

Northrop Grumman, Boeing, and Raytheon had by late summer set up a tentative cooperative teaming arrangement and were expected to formalize it this fall.

“I will be very candid and tell you that there have been some growing pains with this team,” Smart asserted. However, “I will say unequivocally that, today, the teaming arrangement is very strong. We’re very satisfied with what we’ve seen between the three companies.”

Before Jumper began implementing his vision of the common widebody ISR aircraft, the Air Force was already pursuing an update of the E-8 ground target surveillance aircraft. It was called the Multiplatform Radar Technology Insertion Program and would have vastly improved the resolution of the Joint STARS system with a new electronically scanned radar.

The upgrade was aimed at giving the E-8 “enhanced air-to-ground capability and a limited air-to-air capability to do the cruise missile defense mission,” Smart pointed out. It was to be able to spot cruise missiles up to 10,000 feet and deliver 12 times better ground target resolution, down to objects about a foot long.

This upgrade has been recast as the first “spiral,” or step, in the MC2A program. The major change was the shift from a 707 platform to the 767. Spiral 1 will be led by Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, which were leading the now-defunct Joint STARS radar upgrade.

The next step, or Spiral 2, for the common widebody ISR program would add the E-3 airborne battle management capability. Boeing is slated to lead that phase. If technically feasible, it will be in this step that the ability to see and track moving air targets, as well as ground targets, will be integrated, Smart said.

There could also be a Spiral 3 that would add a signals collection and intelligence function to the MC2A. If so, Raytheon would lead this successor to the Rivet Joint, but Smart cautioned that Spiral 3 “is not nearly as clear and it’s not nearly as defined” as Spiral 1 and 2.

The Paul Revere aircraft participated in this summer’s live-fly Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment at Nellis AFB, Nev. Roche last year ordered the experiment planners to include exploration of the MC2A concept.

A Jump Start

Maj. Gen. Robert F. Behler, commander of the Aerospace Command and Control and ISR Center at Langley AFB, Va., said, “The idea was to use Paul Revere to jump-start the MC2A program, to look at the Paul Revere from the point of view of the operators, the testers, scientists, engineers, technicians, concept development people, the acquisition people, all together, to … look at where we’re going” with the common ISR aircraft.

Cobbled together from an empty 707 belonging to MIT’s Lincoln Laboratories, the Paul Revere used an assortment of existing equipment and new systems provided by contractors that, with the government, wanted to see what kinds of off-the-shelf equipment might work.

About $13 million worth of gear went into the experiment, of which more than half was provided by industry.

Col. Bruce Sturk, who was then director of the Air Force Experimentation Office, said the experiment looked at ways information could be exploited in near real time to go after freshly identified Scud-type weapons and other emerging targets. The Paul Revere aircraft performed dynamic tasking of U-2 and Predator aircraft to hunt down targets.

“You’ve heard General Jumper talk about find, fix, target, track, engage, and assess,” Sturk noted. “That was the thread we wanted to use in an airborne experimental platform, to be that adjunct of the air operations center.”

Behler said the project enabled the Air Force to prioritize which of those systems would help most with those kill chain activities.

The experiment highlighted many valuable things that would not have surfaced in a ground-based simulation environment, Behler said. Some were mundane lessons like “where the people should sit, who should sit next to whom,” but others were extremely important, such as the problem of the lost data link.

“We found that when the aircraft went into a turn, we’d lose the data link,” Behler noted. “It’s like losing your cell phone: You’ve got to stop, redial the phone, re-engage the other party.”

The lesson learned was that new antennas–possibly ones that span the wing–will be needed to guarantee data links are not lost, especially during critical times of transfer.

“We had to reboot, get all the computers back up and synched back up. That was a great thing we learned, about how to maintain a data link with the ground and how critically important that is for that situational understanding of the battlespace,” Behler said. It also illustrated the complexities of issues like antenna placement and served as a prime example of why the Paul Revere could not substitute for a 767 test bed, he added.

Another very valuable lesson had to do with the architecture the MC2A’s systems should use.

Behler said the experiment showed the need to “get more into a Web-based technology, like you and I use when we go to AOL [America On Line] or Yahoo,” the commercial Web search engine.

In the live-fly portion of the exercise, the Paul Revere did not actually task any aircraft to attack targets, as the MC2A would in battle, because it did not have direct AWACS data on where aircraft were. It was a safety of flight issue.

More experiments are planned. In the next, data links with space systems and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles will be established, Behler reported.

How Many

Smart declined to say how many Multisensor Command and Control Aircraft orbits the Air Force would need, either to reproduce current Joint STARS capabilities or replace them altogether. Such decisions are “to be defined,” he said.

A senior Air Force official conceded that the new common aircraft is “by no means a done deal,” since the average age of the E-8 aircraft–first platform slated to be replaced–is only a few years and will only be an average of about 12 years when the first orbit is required. There is more understanding, said the official, particularly in Congress, that the Air Force has to get something out there to replace the E-3 airborne battle management aircraft, the average age of which is already over 24 years. It will average nearly 40 years when the E-3-type system actually becomes available on the common widebody platform.

There are, however, concerns that the vision of an airborne information battleship may be overreaching the art of the possible, said Smart. The powerful radars used on the E-3 to scan the skies up to 200 miles away may be incompatible with the synthetic aperture radar functions used by the E-8 ground target surveillance aircraft. Smart acknowledged that such a configuration could lead to a self-jamming airplane. The issue is known as “co-site mitigation,” he added.

Initial technology explorations also suggest that the airframe itself may offer interference problems to performing both missions simultaneously, Smart said.

“As we have become smarter and as we continue to get smarter, we still have questions about being able to put both those sensors on the same platform,” Smart noted. The ground surveillance radar would likely be a long pod underneath the airframe, rather like the electronics canoe found on the Joint STARS aircraft. The AWACS sensor might be saucer-style radome or it might be a long bar-shaped device.

“General Jumper has now been very clear,” Smart said. “It’s preferable, but not mandatory,” to have both sensors on the same airplane.

“What he has left the door open for is, let’s push the envelope hard, but let’s don’t make it a showstopper if we can’t do it.”

Additionally, there is the issue of power. The Japanese 767 AWACS aircraft is already “on the edge of the envelope of power generation capability,” Smart said, without adding the ground-tracking function as well.

If it proves impossible to perform both missions on the same aircraft, the Air Force may need a considerably larger ISR fleet than it expects.

Smart said there are “conflicting studies” on how long the existing ISR fleet will last, depending on who does the analysis. He allowed, though, that the C-135 fleet is not as badly off as the 707-based fleet, and “the sense of urgency to migrate off the RJ [Rivet Joint C-135] platform does not have the same sense of urgency as getting off the 707 [AWACS] platform.”

Eventually, the service would like to get to a 767 fleet for all large-crew ISR platforms, said Smart.

The four-aircraft orbit is all that’s funded today, “but as you evolve this into that next spiral of capability, and as we start to address the [air moving target indicator] piece, certainly the size of the fleet will continue to grow, and we have not yet determined what the end state size of the fleet will be,” Smart added. “But you would certainly think that if you can combine both capabilities onto one platform, you could scale your fleet down significantly.” Not being able to make the integration work would force “a more careful analysis” of fleet size, he said.

Jumper, asked at the Air Force Association National Convention in Washington, D.C., about the size of the common widebody fleet, said he expects that it will grow in size. Each MC2A, he said, will be more powerful and combine functions of today’s aircraft.

The goal is to buy the same number as the existing combined fleet of E-3s, E-8s, and RC-135s. If that happens, said Jumper, “We will have far greater capability, and we can get out of this business of having our ISR assets constantly being an HD/LD [asset].”