Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s three times mentioned the “aging and vulnerable legacy systems” JSTARS and AWACS intelligence and early warning systems in his opening address at the AFA Warfare Symposium. Both are in high demand, and also in dire need of replacement.
JSTARS, the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System is a modified Boeing 707-300 series first deployed in 1991. It is used for ground surveillance, or ground moving target indication (GMTI) capability. AWACS, the E-3 Sentry, is a modified Boeing 707/320 first used in 1977.
The Air Force still maintains 16 JSTARS and 31 AWACS.
Kendall said the airborne surveillance systems are difficult to defend against modern threats and are manpower intensive in an age where artificial intelligence might be highly useful in processing data about air and ground targets in motion..
The Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) is a system of systems approach to this problem. It seeks to achieve DOD’s vision for Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) by means of a complex battlefield network of next-generation sensors and shooters.
“What enables our aforementioned ABMS investments to be successful starts with the ability to acquire targets using sensors and systems in a way that allows targeting data to be passed to an operator for engagement,” he said.
Kendall added: “By using modern networking and communications capabilities in tandem with artificial intelligence for battle management and data collection from numerous sources, we can effectively process information to support superior operational decision-making, substantially improving the performance of our forces.”
The call was for a new intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability.
What’s Next for ISR
Great power competition requires a different ISR capability than the past, a March 4 AWS industry panel on ISR and remote sensing asserted. That capability may not take the form of the aerial platforms the Air Force uses today. It must be more mobile for protection, be more dispersed, and have higher computing power.
“Where we need to go for a future peer conflict is very different than what we’ve been doing for the last two decades,” said Brad Reeves, director of C4I solutions at Elbit Systems of America, told Air Force Magazine after the AWS panel discussion.
“Our nation needs the capability to find mobile and moving targets,” he said. “We need proliferated ISR sensors.”
Reeves said the Air Force needs the ability to find, fix, and track mobile and moving targets. This includes sensors like radar and and the computer power to process that information and distribute it through a command and control (C2) system to process that information. Unmanned and autonomous drones are capable of carrying sensor payloads to accomplish the task.
C2 will inherently evolve over time, Reeves estimated, first by pushing the data from the platform to an operator in the rear, away from the threat areas. Eventually, it will be on board the platform itself.
“We will utilize onboard AI, edge processing to make sense of the data and push recommended actions straight to operators,” Reeves explained.
The new ISR sensor capability will be able to operate autonomously at the edge, or the point of collection, with an artificial intelligence capability to make sense of the information it is gathering and deliver that back to the warfighters.
“The good news is, I think it’s all very doable,” Reeves said.
“I don’t see big, huge heavy platforms to make that happen,” he added. “I see it as small, decentralized mobile, survivable—I’m going to call them command and control nodes.”
The movement is away from centralized, brick-and-mortar ISR structures to “decentralized, dispersed, tactical-level ISR structures.”
When Kendall spoke about aging JSTARS and AWACS, Reeves understood that the Secretary was emphasizing the vital importance of AMTI and GMTI in the joint fight.
“What I hear him saying is we have to replace the capability,” Reeves said, with a nod to the “crowdsourcing” gathering power of dispersed sensors.
“Those capabilities we have to have,” he summed up. “Now, where do you to get them from? It could be satellites in space.”
Space Force ISR and Sensors ‘Looking Up’
U.S. Space Force Director of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance, Air Force Maj. Gen. Leah G. Lauderback believes replacing the aging Air Force ISR platforms with a synergized network of sensors means developing assets that can gather intelligence in a denied or restricted area, something uniquely catered to the space domain.
“We have an opportunity here to truly develop a service ISR capability,” she said.
“The Secretary talks about aging capabilities in those contested and denied areas that we can’t even take aircraft into, or maybe even people on the ground,” she explained. “You’ve got to have a very robust space architecture that is looking down in order to help out all of those in the joint warfight.”
When Lauderback served as the director of intelligence for U.S. Space Command from July 2019 to July 2020, she saw what American space ISR looked like, and what it lacked.
“We definitely have some capabilities,” she said.
“We don’t have enough,” she added. “We don’t have persistence. And we don’t have high fidelity sensors to be able to truly characterize something that is in low-Earth orbit (LEO) or something that is even in GEO [geosynchronous orbit].”
Lauderback said Space Force has the ability to get data it needs from the space layer and send it down, but the future fight requires a new capability.
“Now we need to be thinking about the looking up part,” she said, addressing the need for sensors to look at what is happening in low-Earth orbit with enough definition to attribute an act to a particular country.
“All of those LEO constellations, that if you just turn them around, maybe they could start looking up,” she said. “So, can we put dual sensors on those capabilities? And the answer is yes.”
Evolving America’s ISR capability requires holistic thinking about the ISR constellation, including space, air, ground, and maritime.
Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr. called ISR a core mission at a March 4 AWS media roundtable.
“We cannot do many things with a fighter aircraft, with the missions that we have, without the ISR to set us up for success to be able to manage the kill chain, moving targets, and scales that the Secretary described,” Brown said in response to a question from Air Force Magazine.
“It’s a constant battle, I mean, calculating the risk associated with a particular mission area,” he added, describing how he makes the case for priority investments.
Lauderback said ISR for today’s near-peer fight may not be about replacing platforms with an upgraded model.
“It’s not replacing this airplane with another airplane, perhaps,” she continued. “It is trying to develop an architecture that allows us to gather the intelligence or the information that we desperately need for probably the next contested fight.”