The E-7A, as shown in this illustration, will replace the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). The U.S. is working with Australia, Britain, and Boeing to accelerate the program. Staff Sgt. Nicolas Erwin/illustration
Photo Caption & Credits

Operational Imperative No. 3

July 27, 2023

Moving Target Engagement

If the U.S. is drawn into a conflict with China, the scale would be unlike anything the world has seen since World War II.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has more than 15,000 tanks and artillery pieces. Its Navy has more than 300 warships. The PLA Rocket Force has hundreds of ballistic and cruise missiles, and the PLA Air Force has several thousand aircraft.

Put it all together, and “we can expect strikes on the scale of 100,000 aimpoints or more in the area of the Taiwan Straits,” said retired Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

CHALLENGE: In a hypothetical scenario with a well-resourced adversary, U.S. forces could be faced with numerous ground moving targets and aerial moving targets. We must be capable of engaging those threats simultaneously, in high numbers, and in a time-compressed situation where a few hours are likely to decide the outcome of the conflict. Traditional airborne moving target intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance sensors will be threatened.

APPROACH: Leverage capabilities, such as next-generation sensors and decision support provided by our ABMS investments, to acquire and, if necessary, prosecute targets, prioritizing those that would deny our access to an area of operations.

The sheer number of targets presents a massive challenge. The Air Force, in the midst of a major modernization drive, is divesting legacy air and ground moving target indicator (AMTI/GMTI) platforms. The solutions it develops to replace those aim to accelerate the “kill chain” and leverage capabilities in orbit to do missions formerly done from the air.

Exactly what that will look like remains unclear. In March, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board said one of its four studies in 2023 will focus on AMTI/GMTI, with the goal of producing an “independent assessment of the feasibility of developing and deploying a system incorporating aircraft and satellites to provide surveillance and targeting of moving targets in [highly contested environments].”

The board was set to brief Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in July and deliver a final report in December. 

Aging, Unsurvivable Aircraft

Some plans are already in place. For years, Air Force leaders have bemoaned the service’s reliance on E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft, used for airborne and ground targeting, respectively.

Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mark D. Kelly has called the E-3s “unsustainable without a Herculean effort,” and Maj. Gen. James D. Peccia III, then-deputy assistant secretary for budget, said in 2022 that, in contested airspace, the E-8s “would be gone in a minute.” 

The AWACS fleet averages more than 40 years old and the JSTARS fleet is more than 20. Both platforms have seen mission capable rates plunge in recent years: 63 percent for E-3s at the turn of the fiscal year, and under 50 percent for E-8s. 

Both fleets are small—around 30 E-3s are left, and just about a dozen E-8s—so “the loss of even a few of these types … could have a disproportionate impact on collapsing U.S. combat operations,” noted a Mitchell Institute research paper released in May. 

The Air Force has talked of replacing these aircraft for 20 years now, beginning with a 2003 plan to field the never-built E-10 Multi-Sensor Command and Control Aircraft (MC2A). USAF has talked about the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) for close to a decade, but that concept morphed over time from a platform to more of a networked approach to interconnecting multiple systems and platforms. ABMS as now envisioned is the Air Force’s contribution to joint all-domain command and control (JADC2), expansive enough to merit its own operational imperative.

So when it comes to targeting, the Department of the Air Force is thinking broadly and well beyond conventional platforms.

“There’s a lot of technology out there to do moving target indication, whether it’s airborne, you can get it from the ground and ground surveillance radars, you can do it from space to certain extent,” Patrick “Mike” Shortsleeve, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems vice president of DOD strategic development, told Air & Space Forces Magazine. “But the reality is, you’re going to need all of those to be able to do this, and each of them bring their own advantages and disadvantages.”

From Space

Transferring at least some of the targeting mission to space has long been a goal. A 2012 Targeting Roadmap called for integrating “emerging capabilities of space and cyberspace into a holistic targeting process.”

With the creation of the Space Force in 2019, that idea took on new urgency. In 2021, then-Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond said USSF would assume the mission of providing space-based tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

The Intelligence Community has traditionally owned space-based ISR, but its priority is strategic in nature in support of National Command Authorities; the Space Force is seeking to carve out a means to leverage space to support tactical military operations. 

Lt. Gen. Stephen N. Whiting, head of Space Operations Command, said in May that he sees progress. “I just don’t think we should be concerned if we do land in a place that says ‘Hey, the Space Force will have retained capability for our own purposes to support tactical warfighting like the other services do,’” Whiting said, suggesting the service may launch its own ISR satellites to complement those of the National Reconnaissance Office and industry.

Indeed, the Space Force is seeking $243 million to start developing “Long Range Kill Chains,” a program to provide a space-based Ground Moving Target Indicator system that can replace “a portion” of the JSTARS portfolio, according to budget documents.

This system will “provide actionable information on adversary surface targets to the warfighter through the Advanced Battle Management System as an integral part of the joint all-domain command and control concept.”

USSF anticipates a five-year investment of about $1.2 billion, noting that “proper funding is critical to ensure this system is in place to support the warfighter before all of the JSTARS aircraft retire.”

The Space Force is working with the National Reconnaissance Organization on the program. The NRO Director said in April his agency will have a prototype moving target indicator in orbit in “eight to 12 months.” It is not clear how or even whether that effort is related to “Long Range Kill Chains.”

While the technology is available, sorting out roles will be critical said Shortsleeve, whose last assignment as an Airman was overseeing the command and control and ISR portfolios in the budget office.

“I’ve found that if you follow the money where it’s going, you start to really realize whoever controls the money controls whatever the capabilities,” Shortsleeve said. “So the money is kind of under that NRO umbrella, under the military intel programs. So it’s kind of like, ‘Alright, who really is going to have control of these capabilities?’ Because ultimately, the people far forward in the fight want to have that control, whether it’s through Space Force or NRO, but there’s going to be some challenges there if they haven’t identified who exactly is going to provide that specific support and which satellites would do that.”

From the Sky

While space and cyber offer tantalizing new capabilities for the targeting mission, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall has stated that the AMTI/GMTI mission needs to be cost-effective and will continue to have “airborne components, manned and uncrewed aircraft.” 

The most prominent of those aircraft is the E-7 Wedgetail, a modified Boeing 737 Next Generation with a mechanical electronic scanning array (MESA) radar system that will replace the E-3.

How quickly those E-7s will get into the Air Force fleet remains unclear, though. The service first announced plans to procure the Wedgetail in April 2022, followed by a contract with Boeing in February. At the time, the Air Force expected the first E-7 to be ready for operational duty by 2027, with 24 more by 2032—a relatively quick timeline by usual Pentagon standards.

Meanwhile, the first of 13 AWACS aircraft headed to the Boneyard in April, with two more planned to retire in 2024, leaving a fleet of just 18 aircraft.

Kendall is looking to “accelerate” the E-7 Wedgetail buy, and indicated Boeing wants to help. USAF listed $596 million in unfunded priorities for that purpose this spring, but it’s not yet clear if Congress will fund the need.

Kendall has noted that it takes two years to build the 737 Next Generation airframes, then another two years to outfit them with the Wedgetail gear. There are also a number of other countries buying the E-7, potentially putting the U.S. toward the back of the line.

However, other countries with the E-7 may prove crucial in speeding up the USAF process—In February, Kendall spoke with U.K. Minister for the Armed Forces James Heappey about ways for the two countries to collaborate on the aircraft, specifically to “accelerate U.S. Air Force procurement and fielding of the platform.”

The Royal Air Force has ordered three Wedgetails, with the first being converted from a secondhand Boeing 737 Next Generation airliner and delivered in 2024. With the U.K. slated to get the aircraft first, Program Executive Officer for the digital directorate Steven D. Wert has suggested the U.S. Air Force may be able to conduct necessary testing on the RAF Wedgetail.

Meanwhile, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. told Congress in May that U.S. Airmen will train in Australia this summer and learn from the Royal Australian Air Force operators who are already flying E-7s.

Both existing and future unmanned aircraft will play a role as well, Shortsleeve suggested. Much of the Air Force’s current work on unmanned aircraft is focused on Collaborative Combat Aircraft—semi-autonomous drones that will team with manned fighters. At least some of those drones may carry ISR and sensing capabilities, extending a platform’s target tracking.

“You need to be able to see first to shoot first,” said Shortsleeve. “If we’re going to rely on our sensors to get as close as we can to do it, you can only do that in two ways. One is you put a manned fighter in there and they run a high risk. Or … this is that teaming that the Air Force is looking at for that for what they want to do with unmanned-manned type of fighters and stuff. You have some stuff that’s forward that you can take that greater risk, assign them the task that they need to try that provide that input back to the actual shooter.”