In a future networked force, can we afford to have single-mission platforms? Wing Commander Paul Hay makes the case for air mobility assets to be equipped with additional sensors, in order to optimise every asset and provide airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and communications capability across the operating environment. 

The acquisition of a suite of modern networked, or ‘networkable’ platforms offers Air Force the opportunity to think differently about how we may employ those capabilities. Perhaps we should start thinking of these platforms as a way to fly effects into the battlespace, and keep them powered and available for other users to employ to achieve their outcomes. We may for example consider using air mobility aircraft in different ways without impacting their primary mission or role – such as C-27 Spartan or C-130 Hercules platforms configured with ISR sensors to enhance their mission or provide an ISR sensor to land forces below.

C-27J Spartan

C-27J Spartan [Image credit: RAAF]

The C-27, like other air mobility capabilities before it, is quite obviously configured to fit as much bulk and weight in the cargo compartment – these being the key drivers for the aircraft design and performance. This is no different to how we manage the remainder of our capabilities; ISR aircraft are primarily designed to carry sensors and their operators, not to carry cargo or passengers. What this means is that to provide any other effects, such as overwatch of a landing zone for a C-27, a second aircraft type must be tasked to provide that effect and have suitable communications networks to pass the information to the C-27.

In our current force structure this may involve tasking an AP-3C Orion, with a dozen crew onboard, to perhaps simply provide a Yes/No answer to whether a landing or drop zone is clear. In a future force structure this may involve a dedicated tasking for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), when demand for these assets is likely to be significant. There would be similar requirements providing ISR support for a humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) activity; a concept I will discuss later. Where a limited, but still valuable ISR capability is required, or in instances where persistent UAVs cannot operate, perhaps we should consider enabling our other platforms – such as C-27 – by reconfiguring them to enhance their primary role or provide effects for others.

Example of a pylon mounted ISR system

Example of a pylon mounted ISR system

A similar concept could be applied to C-130 aircraft, potentially without modifying the aircraft at all; instead utilise wing pylons to mount the ISR capabilities, such as the ISR pod shown at right. Not only could this provide enhanced awareness to the crew, but many of these reconfigurable pod mounted options are designed to be controlled by land or surface elements without any interaction by the crew. The C-130 could not just be used to clear a drop zone, but after the paratroopers have landed it could remain overhead to provide streaming video, threat warning, highlight targets with the inbuilt laser pointer and potentially use the laser as a target designator for laser guided munitions of a supporting fighter. Some of these capabilities can be controlled directly from the ground, enabling the customer to take control of the turret while the aircraft merely keeps it powered overhead.

Consider how such platforms may have been of use during the Cyclone Debbie assistance efforts. C-27s, C-130s and B-300 aircraft are tasked for air mobility support, perhaps transporting valuable water and food or state emergency service (SES) personnel to locations struck by cyclonic winds or flood waters, but with each platform fitted with ISR systems. Each platform could be tasked to fly a different route to image towns, bridges, roads and dams, either with personnel operating the sensors or with pre-programmed collection tasks using unattended sensors fitted externally. The C-130 may be fitted with an electro-optic capability and able to stream imagery directly into the cargo hold for display on an AirView 360 video system for the emergency personnel to view on the transit to their nearby destination. The same video could be streamed offboard to the SES volunteers on the ground via Wifi to assist in locating flood rescue victims.

SES members brief Minister for Defence and Chief of Defence Force following Cyclone Debbie [Image credit: Defence]

SES members brief Minister for Defence and Chief of Defence Force following Cyclone Debbie [Image credit: Defence]

What if in the year before the cyclone, defence had leant forward and partnered with Australian Industry, Emergency Management Authorities in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, and developed an iPhone and Android mobile device compatible ISR App based on a GoogleMaps engine. On landing the aircraft’s unclassified media hard drives would be removed and connected to an unclassified server or laptop, indexed and made discoverable to emergency services personnel for immediate use. Emergency Services staff throughout Queensland had each set their own searches around towns, over bridges and dams to alert them when new imagery was available to assist in their planning for the days’ activities.

Immediately after the B-300 landed in Bowen and plugged the media hard drive into the internet, the metadata tagged data was indexed, and dozens of emergency services personnel across the state received alerts that imagery of their individual area of interest was now available for download. They each review the low-res small data chips that automatically appeared in the GoogleMaps alert box, and only pull the relevant hi-resolution images pertinent to their area to conserve valuable bandwidth. All of this being possible with the only person in the loop being the maintainer who pulled the hard drive on landing and plugged it into the local internet; a concept worth thinking about.

Thinking more broadly, it would be an interesting outcome if Air Force developed a roadmap for future ISR and enabling communications systems inform the acquisition of a suite of pod mounted, platform agnostic capabilities to generate effects in the battlespace. These may include electro-optic systems, radars, electronic attack pods and communications enablers in the battlespace. In the Cyclone Debbie assistance scenario above, Air Force may also be able to provide mobile phone or wifi services onboard its persistent platforms above cyclone or flood affected areas where communications systems have been disabled.

A RAAF KA350 King Air flies past flood affected Proserpine after Cyclone Debbie struck the region [Image credit: RAAF]

A RAAF KA350 King Air flies over flood affected areas after Cyclone Debbie struck Queensland [Image credit: RAAF]

In this future, an air tasking order (ATO) for a KC-30 sortie may include a fuel load of 80,000lbs, a networked electro-optic/infrared pod for use by ground forces and an airborne gateway capability to provide communications translation and relay for land and maritime forces. Those same capabilities may be carried by a Triton UAS the next day to ensure the same supported unit is serviced by the effects. In this sense, the platforms are conducting their primary roles, and at the same time simply transporting and powering effects for other supported elements in the battlespace.

This future view would require us to ‘operationalise’ communications in the Air Force. This process would start with communications planners in the Master Air Attack Plan (MAAP) cell of the Air Operations Centre (AOC) who would understand the supported commander’s scheme of manoeuvre for the ATO day being planned, and ensure that the requested communications and ISR effects are taken into account with the force laydown being planned. They would look at the available platforms on task during the effects period, perhaps moving a tanker orbit 20nm closer to the supported commander to ensure the networked sensors are in range of both the target area and their datalinks. The ATO would drop, the aircraft would launch, and during execution the communications personnel in Combat Operations Division would dynamically re-task assets remotely or talk to the aircraft airborne to generate the required ad-hoc networks to support the commander.

Nothing comes for free of course. The adoption of such a concept comes with the usual overheads of training, through-life support of systems, stores carriage clearance, degradation of fleet numbers during modifications and the risk that it may look attractive to some people to employ expensive platforms in other than in their primary role. Air Force would need to ensure that any investments in this arena are integrated within the extant Air Force Capability Programs and joint force design and make sense in terms of personnel and funding resource constraints. It would also require Air Force to establish and equip an agile experimentation, integration and testing organisation well resourced to conduct this type of work. Perhaps this would fit nicely within our new Air Warfare Centre.

Wing Commander Paul Hay is a current serving RAAF Officer. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.