Future UK ISTAR & ELINT - the options

Canberra PR9

Under Project Dabinett, the UK MOD is beginning to investigate its long term requirement for a Long-Range Long –Endurance (LRLE) air vehicle capable of providing their Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability over the next 3 decades. This requirement is being brought into sharp focus as the RAF’s remaining 5 Canberra PR9 aircraft rapidly approach their planned retirement date of 2006, with no obvious candidate in place to provide the Image Intelligence (IMINT) collected by the ageing, but still highly capable aircraft. In 2003 a 9-month study was undertaken by BMT Defence Services to develop a user requirements document. The final document defines the capability gap left after current ISTAR platforms are retired, as well as outlining the UK's future ISTAR requirement and is the result of extensive research and interviews with all those currently served with the current ISTAR output.

It has long been accepted that the Canberra PR9 will be a particularly difficult asset to replace, as for many years this aircraft has offered an almost unique combination of performance, payload and operating costs. Despite the age of the airframes, the reconnaissance capability of the PR9 has been continually updated over its service life and currently it can employ digital cameras and upload the data over a satellite link, in a similar fashion to the U-2S. Although the introduction into service of the Sentinel R1 ASTOR between 2005/6 will add significantly to the UK’s overall capability, the aircraft currently lacks any means of collecting IMINT. Furthermore, given the weight difficulties that this aircraft has already encountered with its current design fit of equipment, it would seem unlikely that any additional equipment could be squeezed onto the aircraft.

Global Hawk

One solution that many observers would like to see is the purchase by the UK MOD of a number of Global Hawk HALE UAVs. This highly capable UAV can not only provide superb IMINT with its onboard cameras but can also operate just as effectively at night or in bad weather using its SLAR. Furthermore, it is capable of loitering over a target area for up to 60hrs, far longer than a manned aircraft would remain. However, despite being used extensively over Iraq during Gulf War II, the Global Hawk is actually only just entering operational service with the USAF and given the low rate of production and the demand for this vehicle, it would be a long time before any could be available. Cost would also be a big factor and, given the current state of the MOD finances, it would seem highly unlikely sufficient funds could be found.

Canberra PR9 - Navigators position

The most obvious solution is to purchase up to 6 additional ultra-long range Bombardier Global Express aircraft and install long-range optical cameras, together with a comprehensive communications fit including SATCOM, in the aircraft – a relatively simple task compared to the Sentinel R1 installation. The performance capabilities of the Bombardier Global Express is not completely dis-similar to the PR9, in terms of an operating altitude of 50,000ft, but it could also remain longer on station for up to 11 hours, and carry much more equipment. However, it only cost £15.5M to operate the five PR9s during Financial Year 2001/2002 - a very low amount considering the capabilities it offers and one that the Global Express would struggle to meet. But perhaps most importantly the Global Express would allow the crew to operate in much greater comfort than in a PR9 – take a look at the navigators position in the nose of a PR9!

ASTOR Sentinel R1

The advantages of fleet commonality with the Sentinel are self evident, particularly in terms of the airframe, engines and pilot training and these would help reduce costs, as the eventual replacement for the Canberra PR9 will almost certainly be based alongside the Sentinel R1 at RAF Waddington. However, as the current and future UK defence budget is under enormous strain and this will result in aircraft being withdrawn from service prematurely, together with a number of station closures, it’s difficult to see where the money can be found to get a PR9 replacement in service by 2006. Although the 4 camera equipped Nimrod MR2s can provide some capability, I suspect the PR9 will probably have to soldier on until the end of the decade, because its eventual replacement is still a long way from entering service.

Nimrod R1

Also currently underway is Project Helix, a £400m programme looking at the cost effectiveness of a number of platforms, including MRA4, Business Jets, Large Aircraft and UAVs, that could undertake the Electronic Surveillance task. Project Helix will sustain the capability currently provided by the Nimrod R Mk 1 ELINT aircraft operated by 51 Sqn based at RAF Waddington, resulting in the installation of updated and improved missions systems in the R1s, as well as considering how these new systems could be installed in the Nimrod MRA4 and UAVs. Three companies, L-3 Communications, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, are conducting parallel 9 month studies, but by 2006 these 3 companies will be whittled down to one for the initial project phase worth £200m – a second project phase of £200m will follow later. Despite their age, and the eventual replacement of the Nimrod MR2s by the MRA4, the 3 Nimrod R1s are scheduled to remain in service until 2012. Raytheon, under Project Extract worth some £100m, completed a mission system upgrade on the 3 aircraft in 2003. This upgrade, which replaced manually operated collection systems with automated collection equipment, plus other hardware and software enhancements, will ensure the aircraft maintain their capability as their eventual retirement and replacement draws ever nearer.

The replacement for the R1 will turn on one simple question – manned or unmanned. At the moment there appear to be no plans to convert additional MR2 airframes into MR4As to replace the R1s. However, given the delays that have occurred to this project, I imagine it would still be possible to add three additional airframes to the end of the programme. Nevertheless, it might well prove more attractive and cheaper to purchase some additional Bombardier Global Express aircraft, providing a common airframe with the Sentinel R1, and convert these aircraft for ELINT duties. Although an ELINT Global Express would have to operate with much less on-board equipment than the current R1, the continual shrinkage and increased sophistication of electronic systems may well make this possible. However, the mission crew size of the current Nimrod R1 would also have to shrink considerably, but provided much of the ‘take’ was uploaded via a SATCOM datalink to a sophisticated interpretation centre, this issue could be resolved and may well prove to be an attractive option.

Global Hawk in hanger at Nordholz

I imagine that great interest will be taken by the UK MOD in the recent successful trial at Nordholz in Germany of an ELINT equipped Global Hawk as a potential replacement for their ELINT Atlantics. The benefits of using a HALE UAV, with again the ‘take’ data linked via SATCOM direct to a well equipped interpretation centre, are obvious. Nevertheless, although the potential benefits of an unmanned system are clear, whether the UK is willing to take such a radical step will probably depend on whether the Germans ELINT Global Hawk, planned to enter service in 2008, proves to be a success.