The Air Force’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance portfolio is undergoing a shift from a force structured to support the demands of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to one tailored for more challenging environments. This will impact USAF’s “big wing” ISR aircraft, a numerically small but critical component of the combat air forces. These large, manned platforms boast a great deal of specialized capability—from gathering sensitive electronic intelligence to air battle management to secure command and control links.
As part of this effort, USAF is undertaking a series of large and small initiatives to keep these aircraft viable for decades to come. The service is eyeing successor platforms to the E-8 JSTARS and refining the capabilities of the E-3 AWACS air battle management and command and control fleet and the special-mission RC-135 fleet.
The RC-135 fleet, built on the same airframes utilized for the Air Force’s KC-135 Stratotanker, include the RC-135S Cobra Ball, used for measurement and signature intelligence gathering on ballistic missile launches and the WC-135 Constant Phoenix, used to collect atmospheric air samples to verify nuclear test ban compliance. The fleet encompasses the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, used to gather real-time electronic and signals intelligence to disseminate from tactical commanders all the way up to National Command Authorities. Also part of this diverse inventory: the RC-135U Combat Sent, specifically tailored to gather technical intelligence on radar and air defense systems.
Deployed worldwide under the auspices of the 55th Wing at Offutt AFB, Neb., RC-135s are frequently called into service.
Though a relatively small slice of USAF’s combat airpower—taken together, the three RC-135, E-8, and E-3 fleets add up to just under 80 aircraft—their capabilities are unmatched and much sought after by the joint force by combatant commanders from the Asia-Pacific to Europe.
Small and Expensive
This is why USAF leaders have stressed that their No. 4 modernization priority (after the KC-46 tanker, the F-35 fighter, and the Long-Range Strike Bomber) is replacing the E-8 JSTARS battle management and ISR aircraft. It has grown increasingly expensive to maintain due to its age and the small fleet size.
USAF must also modernize its E-3 AWACS fleet in the coming years. Both JSTARS and AWACS are critical to maintaining control of any battlespace the US could be flying into in a future conflict, particularly ones where enemies would try to disrupt US space assets. The ground target tracking and command control offered by JSTARS and the powerful aerial radar of AWACS are critical for distributed control of air assets in contested environments.
The third leg of USAF’s ISR wide-body aircraft, the RC-135, is vital to gathering highly sensitive electronic intelligence around the world, information that assets such as satellites or high-altitude ISR aircraft often cannot obtain. The RC-135U Combat Sent, for example, is equipped with specialized sensors to detect, analyze, and gather technical information on radar systems and integrated air defense networks. Even today, the mission, often flown by unaccompanied aircraft far from friendly skies, sometimes leads to tense aerial standoffs reminiscent of the Cold War.
RC-135s have been in the headlines several times in the last few years, as they have had close encounters in both the Asia-Pacific and Europe while conducting reconnaissance missions. In April 2014, a Russian Su-27 Flanker flew dangerously close to an RC-135U aircraft conducting a mission north of Japan in the Sea of Okhotsk, flying within 100 feet of the aircraft’s cockpit and turning its wing to brandish air-to-air missiles.
In April of this year, another Russian Su-27 performed an “unsafe and unprofessional” intercept of an RC-135U in international airspace over the Baltic Sea, according to Pentagon officials. It prompted a US diplomatic protest. The Russians claimed the aircraft was “making steady progress” toward its borders and was not using its transponder. US European Command officials refuted these charges, declaring the aircraft was operating in accordance with international civil aviation flight rules.
ISR is critical to nearly every contingency or evolving crisis around the globe. Across all combatant commands, ISR demands are driving the Air Force to move money from other areas in an attempt to meet demands.
The calls for ISR continue to grow, despite a drawdown from Afghanistan, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III told the House Appropriations panel on defense in February. The anti-ISIS air campaign that began last summer has driven demand up again.
“When [combatant commanders] tell us that their No. 1 priority is ISR, … we … ask, … ‘Would you prefer for us to invest in more ISR, or in maintaining things like close air support?’?” Welsh told the House panel. It has become “the coin of the realm” and the Air Force provides quite a bit of it, Welsh said. This resulted in a plus up in ISR funding.
The large ISR aircraft offer large crews of analysts and sensor operators and secure data links to pass information where it is needed, and they are air refuelable. Despite advances in putting high-tech sensors on unmanned aircraft such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk, big wing ISR assets are often called on to carry out specialized ISR tasks in some of the most sensitive combatant commands. According to officials with Offutt’s 55th Wing, twice in the past year RC-135s supported urgent missions for five combatant commands within 24 hours.
Because of the way RC-135s fly and how their specialized sensors pick up signals and electronic intelligence, “we have access to targets that other capabilities don’t,” said Col. Mohan Krishna, commander of the 55th Operations Group at Offutt. “Compared to what a non-air breather could do, we have the benefit of physics and distance. I can get closer to a target than an overhead [asset]. … I can get close but be far enough and still get information on targets.” A large crew of analysts and sensor operators help process the intelligence quickly, and aerial refueling capability gives the RC-135 long legs for global taskings.
Integrating the RC-135
Despite its reputation as a shadowy Cold War aircraft that flew missions “alone and unafraid,” the RC-135 is now more integrated into the USAF combat force than ever before. The aircraft are often on the leading edge of testing ISR concepts and tactics, analysis and dissemination, target tracking, and information sharing, Krishna noted.
“A lot of what we do [today] is work together, in what we call ‘the Iron Triad,’” said Krishna, when asked about how the three specialized aircraft contribute to the Air Force’s air-breathing ISR capabilities.
E-3 AWACS and E-8 JSTARS use their powerful airborne radars to detect targets in the air and on the ground, and an RC-135 can then fill in missing pieces of information. Using data links such as Link 16, RC-135s share information for situational awareness that would not be possible without the trio working in combination. Airmen “amplify each other’s tracks,” Krishna said. Simply put, JSTARS and AWACS help identify where a target is located and its identity, “and on top of that I’ll be able to tell you what he’s thinking and what he’s intending to do,” using the RC-135s potent sensor suites, Krishna claimed.
Part of USAF’s ISR plan is to not only improve on the unique capabilities resident in the RC-135, E-3, and E-8, but to link those capabilities to the rest of the force, through high-fidelity training and exercising, while developing new distributed intelligence analysis tools. The service is tweaking its ISR portfolio to operate in high-end threat environments, improve data sharing, and invest in cultivating its intelligence analysts—be they on board aircraft or back in a combined air and space operations center (CAOC).
Krishna, a veteran RC-135 navigator, oversees some 3,000 airmen spread across 12 squadrons and two detachments around the globe, at RAF Mildenhall, UK, and Kadena AB, Japan. He said that since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, the RC-135 fleet has steadily integrated into the combat air forces that need its powerful ISR tools.
“We have more capabilities to get information, and to bring that information on the aircraft, than any other platform,” he said. Today, analysts can participate in RC-135 sorties in real time as never before, he noted, even if they are not on the aircraft. This is possible thanks to a new broadband capability using the Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) Satellite constellation. “I can have analysts here at Offutt or Kadena or Mildenhall participate on the mission as if they are on the airplane,” Krishna said, and while the RC-135 fleet is “leading” the maturation of this capability, it has promise across the ISR mission.
“We’ve had this capability, but for a while, the bandwidth wasn’t there to fully enable it,” Krishna said. “It is truly an enabling concept.”
RC-135, E-3, and E-8 crews take advantage of modern simulators at events like Red Flag, where ISR airmen can conduct distributed mission operations that push the limits of integration without actually burning up flight hours on the aircraft. Simulators “help us keep [tactics, techniques, and procedures] sharp, even better than we could in the real world,” Krishna said.
JSTARS has proved to be one of the most in-demand platforms in the ISR portfolio since its combat debut in the Gulf War and continues to rack up deployments. In 2014, the E-8C fleet hit 100,000 flight hours in support of all combatant commands.
In late May, E-8s deployed just in support of US Central Command taskings marked 100,000 flight hours in more than 13 years of operations, after flying a sortie from Al Udeid AB, Qatar. The streak stretches back to Operation Southern Watch.
With its unique blend of ISR and C2 tools, the JSTARS fleet is extremely effective at melding the “operational and tactical level of war,” Col. Henry Cyr, then commander of the 461st Air Control Wing at Robins AFB, Ga., told reporters in September 2014.
The next generation program is in its early concept development stage, but already it is shaping up to look much different from the widebody E-8, as the Air Force wants to develop and deploy a “business class jet”—a smaller aircraft ranging in size from a Gulfstream 550 to a Boeing 737. It would carry a smaller crew and utilize more modern electronics that would need less intensive maintenance.
Air Combat Command boss Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, speaking in early June at an Air Force Association event in Arlington, Va., said the recap program is proceeding well but the “speed to ramp” progress is important to USAF, because of its plans to get to the new aircraft. USAF is cutting the size of the existing JSTARS fleet and using the savings to pay for replacements ready to operate by 2023. The new aircraft will have the current capabilities and tools onboard, with the ability to add spiral improvements as technology matures. This could keep the fleet combat relevant for several more decades.
The E-3 fleet is in the midst of its most significant upgrade to date. Most of its legacy avionics and systems are being swapped out. The Block 40/45 upgrade program is scheduled to run through Fiscal 2020. USAF proposed retiring seven of the E-3s from the 31-airframe fleet in 2015 in order to generate savings to modernize the rest of the fleet, but Congress has thus far not agreed to the plan.
The upgrade completely replaces the E-3’s mission computer systems—dating to the 1970s—adding a new open network-based mission system, better threat-tracking tools, and more processing power. The upgrade will improve the aircraft’s data link infrastructure and sensor fusion—both key to keeping the fleet viable in contested future conflicts.
Last July, Air Combat Command declared initial operational capability for the E-3G, the upgraded Block 40/45 assigned to the 552nd Air Control Wing at Tinker AFB, Okla., when the sixth low rate production E-3G was delivered. Full-rate production is now underway, with the seventh modified airframe delivered to Tinker in April.
The RC-135 fleet is composed of some of the youngest aircraft from the now-shuttered C-135 line, Krishna said. Airframes were delivered in the early 1960s and received new engines after the KC-135 fleet went through its own re-engining. The RC-135 fleet is in no hurry to re-platform, as a result. “But that’s just the airframe,” he noted. Every four years, the Big Safari rapid-prototyping program delivers a new baseline via a spiral upgrade process. “So the insides of these are brand-new. … Even after four years, you start to see vanishing vendors, and obsolescence comes into play.”
He continued, “We have to be relevant in many different scenarios,” and this requires quick reaction capabilities, often going from conception to fielding in as little as a few months.
Because of this rapid response fielding, the RC-135 fleet can serve as the showcase for key tools and technologies that can then migrate to the rest of the ISR fleet and the combat air force. An example of this was the early use and maturation of Network-centric Collaborative Targeting, or NCCT, an effort that enabled better real-time coordination of ISR against targets and disseminating that data quickly to other places in the Air Force’s network, Krishna said. It’s another network where the CAOC “can integrate sensors and get things very quickly to where they are needed,” he said, from troops involved in a firefight up to the President.
Much like the rest of the ISR enterprise, the Iron Triad is grappling with how to adapt the layered and powerful global USAF network to be effective in numerous scenarios and to utilize a vast amount of data from many sources and platforms. As manpower is strained on the analytical side, the service is rethinking how it disseminates and analyzes information, examining concepts such as data tagging and secure “cloud computing.”
Speaking at AFA’s Air & Space Conference last September, Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for ISR Maj. Gen. Linda R. Urrutia-Varhall said USAF will have fewer assets then ever to carry out ISR tasks, so the service has to get better at using and manipulating the information it already has. It will need to produce “multi-INT analysis” rather than just pull from individual platforms and sensors.
“The biggest challenge is knowing what that next critical target will be and having that right analyst available to build intel on that target,” Krishna observed. Today, ISR commanders are making decisions on not just what sensors and tools are needed, but what skills will be necessary for their analysts to use this information.
“We build based on what we’ve seen, but we also know the world is always changing,” Krishna said. This is why reachback tools and concepts are so important, as they allow the sensors and tools on a given aircraft to be utilized back in a CAOC or operations center. Demand for USAF’s ISR products will never be met, he noted, “but we are doing the best we can to meet … needs around the world.”