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(Washington, D.C) The complex and fast-changing threat landscape in Europe and the Pacific is leading the U.S. and its allies in the region to vigorously pursue new drones, surveillance technologies and fixed-wing platforms configured for long-range, long-dwell, multi-sensor targeting missions
Finding enemy armored convoys on the back side of a mountain beyond line of sight, supporting ballistic missile defense operations, tracking enemy targets from the sky with optical, multi-spectral and RF sensors and networking time-sensitive combat data across multiple domains in near real time amid war … are all missions U.S., U.K. and NATO fixed-wing surveillance assets will increasingly be expected to perform.
Despite the rapid arrival of smaller kinds of surveillance drones and new kinds of unmanned systems, there is still a pressing need for a new generation of innovations supporting advanced fixed-wing ISR capable of advanced aerial data processing, transmission and command and control.
With this strategic focus in mind, various industry innovators such as Raytheon and Bombardier are introducing a new high-tech, fixed-wing surveillance plane, called ISTAR, for Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance.
The new aircraft, built by Bombardier, designed and modified by Raytheon for the ISTAR mission with support and modification in country by Korean Airlines Defense, is being offered to support the Korean military as well as other key U.S. allies around the globe.
Raytheon is offering ISTAR as the next generation Special Mission Aircraft offering following the retirement of the British Sentinel aircraft on March 31, a Cold-War inspired UK surveillance plane which has performed well in a large number of operational circumstances throughout a period of many years, to include the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and various NATO operations. “The Sentinel has been a core capability that’s been deployed pretty much in every single UK operation, or coalition operation, whether UK has been involved in and that’s simple, flying from the UK, but more often, the platform is deep being deployed overseas, whether it be to the Middle Eastern Region, or to Africa, or supporting operations in Afghanistan,” said Paul Francis, director at Raytheon United Kingdom. It has a robust flying hours profile, I think it’s like 32,000 hours in actual operations in supporting combat operations.”
Designed for airborne command and control, ISTAR is the latest proposed solution that incorporates a suite of integrated next-generation sensors enabled by advanced computing.
The plane of course operates Multi-Spectral imagery, Signals Intelligence sensors and also incorporates Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), a technology which bounces electromagnetic “pings” off of the terrain below traveling at the speed of light and then analyzes the return signal to produce a rendering or image of a given area for commanders.
“The core of the system is Raytheon’s AESA radar, which is a synthetic aperture radar, with a moving target indicated capability. And that was the primary sensor on the Sentinel,” said Jason Colosky, business development executive at Raytheon Intelligence & Space.
The ISTAR aircraft is also supported and Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR), and Moving Target Indication (MTI) which operates in a similar fashion making it useful in a maritime environment to track moving ships or detect enemy ground vehicle maneuvers on land. Land movement tracking is also done by ISTAR’s Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) sensor technology, something which Raytheon data says integrates with the SAR applications. The connection between GMTI and SAR modes is made possible by an Advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar system which can even in some instances support ballistic missile defense.
This combined or integrated effect between land and maritime SAR detection is explained in part in a 2019 essay in the Journal of Ocean Engineering and Science, which discusses the impact of variation innovations upon SAR functionality in maritime environments. The essay, called a “Study of Synthetic Aperture Radar and Automatic Identification System for Ship Target Detection,” explains how high-resolution SAR technologies produce new levels of highly-detailed image renderings.
“High resolution SAR is able to provide images of the two dimensional information objects. A good radar image depends upon a smooth variation in phase history over the data-gathering interval. The high resolution and large spatial coverage of SAR imaging systems offers a unique opportunity to derive the various oceanic features. SAR systems take an advantage of the long-range propagation characteristics of radar signals and the complex information processing capability of modern digital electronics to provide high-resolution imagery,” the essay states.
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ISTAR, which can operate at altitudes between 42,000 and 45,000 ft for extended 12 hour missions, also operates multi-spectral long-range imagery to provide both visible and infrared intelligence and targeting.
Interestingly, ISTAR developers make the point that larger, fixed-wing surveillance platforms, while less stealthy, can still massively impact the speed and operational effectiveness in major power maneuver warfare, due to their ability to provide targeting at long stand-off distances.
While of course still useful for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, challenges which are not going away entirely, large ISR planes such as ISTAR can prove even more impactful in a major conflict against a sophisticated adversary .. provided operators make some key tactical adjustments.
“For the past 15 years, if you had a good radar system, you could keep the ground commander fully up to speed with what’s happening. It wasn’t that the enemy was weak, but the enemy certainly wasn’t complex. This is not the same as what we're going to face in a peer, adversary type of conflict,” said Colosky.
The concept is, among many things, airborne command and control driven by an integrated suite of sensor and computing technologies architected to pool multiple types of intelligence or multi-INT. ISTAR processes and analyzes that intelligence to offer a near real-time operational picture to war commanders. While there may need to be dispersed, long-range networking, manned-unmanned teaming, advanced computing and high-speed electro-optical and RF data link networking, a medium sized surveillance plane with a small on-board crew performing analytics and command and control is intended to bring certain kinds of unparalleled advantages to high-end warfare.
“It is definitely a stair step progression in technology and the complexity because the adversaries we’re facing now are going to be far more complex in what they can do, so this Is how we are addressing the threat,” said Colosky.
ISTAR is larger than the U.S. Army’s Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS) yet smaller than the now retiring JSTARS, something which developers believe may offer an optimal blend of airborne command and control with speed, maneuverability and a wide sphere of interconnected sensors. The strategy, it would appear, may be to blend the unique benefits of a manned airborne command and control asset with cutting-edge or more recent strategic concepts such as real-time, dispersed multi-node “mesh” networking to maximize operational reach while massively expediting high-speed sensor-to-shooter connectivity.
While Japan, Australia and Taiwan are all making news for the pace at which they are both developing and acquiring new surveillance platforms such as drones and surveillance planes, the Republic of Korea is often overlooked as a strategically vital and critically positioned ally equally in need of surveillance. Being attached to the Korean Peninsula, and therefore directly merged into the Asian continent, Korea provides a uniquely positioned opportunity for U.S. and allied deterrence missions in the region.
The Republic of Korea military is preparing to counter threats from a large and somewhat aggressive adversary by acquiring a new, highly-capable integrated surveillance platform, engineered to merge radar tracking systems with terrain mapping, moving target indication for movement detection and tracking, multispectral imagery sensing, Signals Intelligence and advanced computing enabling sophisticated Battle Management Command and Control to direct the battlespace..
The Raytheon Intelligence & Space and Bombardier built Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) is the focus of a partnership between the two firms and Korean Air to offer the RoKAF a new generation of fixed wing ISR technology, a system specifically built in large measure to find, track and potentially target adversaries amid challenging strategic and geographical conditions.
“There are mountains everywhere in on the Korean peninsula, so a radar can lose its track relatively quickly,” said Jason Colosky, business development executive, Raytheon Intelligence & Space. “We're able to follow anything from the electronic emanations of some of these vehicles where we can paint a picture from behind mountains that we can't even see what's on the other side, we can paint a picture for that battlefield commander. Integrating this data with other source data allows us to know exactly when something's going on or not, and so that we can alert coalition forces,” said Colosky.
The ongoing flash points in the Asia Pacific region explain why these key elements are a top priority for South Korea to pursue ISTAR.
ISTAR seeks to bring airborne command and control to new levels of image fidelity, sensor resolution, sensor interoperability and, perhaps most of all, information analysis and transmission. Some of the on board systems include Multi-Spectral cameras, Synthetic Aperture Radar, Ground Moving Target Indicator and on-board mapping, Signals Intelligence sensors, data analysis and multi-node information networking. Some of this key sensor data integration, Raytheon data explains, includes an ability to integrate other sensors with signals intelligence (SIGINT) systems to locate enemy communications and RF transmissions.
“What we're able to do with ISTAR is bring all of those signals together and create a common operating picture for that ground commander, and that air commander,” said Colosky.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.