Jane's Aerospace Defense and Security Blog

Airborne ISR – Towards multimission and increasing automation




The Jane's team looks at the most recent technological advancements in ISR, covering manned/unmanned platforms, and EO/IR simulation and training in this extract from the Jane’s Online Intelligence Briefing series. Content from this extract has been taken from a range of Jane’s defence industry solutions, Learn more

Manned ISR missions

The concept of Airborne Early Warning was developed during world war two to increase detection range over that provided by surface radars due to the operating altitude of the platform, and later to provide coverage for expeditionary forces.

These platforms have evolved from being a pure sensor and air traffic control or early warning node to being a battlespace manager with the addition of elements such as ESM and additional radar modes such as maritime surveillance. They are also capable of fusing of off-board sensor data, enabled by enhanced communication suites and datalinking, together with improved on-board data processing. These developments are clearly illustrated by the employment over time of the NATO and Royal Air Force E-3 Sentry fleets. The NATO E-3A fleet adopted a command and control function after the 1991 Gulf War when its role expanded from air defence to include ground strike management. The RAF's E-3D was originally a pure Airborne Early Warning asset, but from its time operating over the Balkans in the 1990s it took on a command and control function. When UK maritime patrol assets were increasingly tasked overland in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns the E-3 was pushed to the maritime surveillance mission and also undertook counter narcotics taskings in the Caribbean.

Unmanned ISR maritime patrol/surveillance

There are many ISR missions that have now been developed for UAVs and they have been in action for many decades, proving their significant worth in the many conflicts in recent times. One of the developing missions is maritime patrol and surveillance, a domain previously performed by manned aircraft, with the P-3 Orion being of prime significance. These fleets are gradually being replaced by more modern manned aircraft, unmanned aircraft, or through a teaming of both. 

The Northrop Grumman Triton is the largest and most sophisticated unmanned aircraft to perform this role. It is currently in low-rate initial production and the first examples will be deployed from the Guam US base in 2018. Some 66 UAVs are planned to be procured in the years to come.

Ship-based unmmaned aircraft

A domain that is in rapid development is ship-based UAVs. With the exception of the US Navy's MQ-8B/C Fire Scout system, current sea-based UAV options are limited to smaller tactical-level UAVs. However, a number of recent developments will provide medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAV sea-based capability with multi-mission roles.

The DARPA Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) programme Phase 3 down-selected to Northrop Grumman, is central to the proof of concept and development of new generation UAVs able to be based from a variety of naval vessels, giving great flexibility of operation.

Penetrating mission unmanned aircraft

A domain that is in rapid development is ship-based UAVs. With the exception of the US Navy's MQ-8B/C Fire Scout system, current sea-based UAV options are limited to smaller tactical-level UAVs. However, a number of recent developments will provide medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAV sea-based capability with multi-mission roles.

The DARPA Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) programme Phase 3 down-selected to Northrop Grumman, is central to the proof of concept and development of new generation UAVs able to be based from a variety of naval vessels, giving great flexibility of operation.

Swarming unmanned aircraft

A new development that will revolutionise the way ISR missions are performed is UAV swarming. Activity is prolific, with many initiatives underway in the US, covering all the US forces. Four examples of this are Gremlins, LOCUST, Perdix, and CICADA programmes.

Other nations are also making progress, particularly China, which has recently demonstrated large swarms of small UAVs.

EO/IR Sensors

EO/IR sensor technologies have always been a major part of both manned and unmanned aircraft ISR. Moreover, recent technology development in the visible and infrared spectra represents a significant, if not disruptive, step forward in the evolution of ISR operations and doctrine.

A number of operational needs have prompted EO/IR sensor technology development:

  • The ever increasing need for longer ISR standoff range in denied environments and on the battlefield.
  • Increased demand for more operationally flexible reconnaissance systems that provide both traditional cross-track scanning and newer point and track modes for extended imaging of particular targets and areas. Such systems offer information capture advantages that cannot be obtained by traditional cameras.

Simulation and training for ISR

Simulation based training technologies are helping to bring change in the training patterns for ISR applications. There are several reasons behind this. First of all, there is an increased demand for Remotely Piloted Aircraft pilots. So the U.S. Air Force, in particular, is looking for ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of training to increase the throughput of graduating pilots. Simulation tools are one solution to this.

This is an extract from the Jane’s Online Intelligence Briefing series. Content from this extract has been taken from a range of Jane’s defence industry solutions, Learn more.

Jane's Editorial Staff
Posted 17 October 2017

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Jane's Aerospace, Defence & Security Editorial Staff

Jane’s is the renowned global open-source intelligence provider to militaries, governments, intelligence agencies and industry. With more than 100 years of experience, Jane’s delivers critical knowledge and independent analysis in the specialist fields of defense, security, public safety, transport and law enforcement.