‘Podded’ capabilities have the potential to significantly increase the flexibility of Air Force assets across a range of traditional and emerging roles. In this first of a three-post series, Squadron Leader Jimmy explores the concept of ‘podded’ capabilities and how they may increase the utility of aircraft assets across the full spectrum of operations, regardless of their ‘primary’ mission role.

The concept of introducing flexible additional capabilities into the battlespace, raised by Paul Hay in his post “Are we missing out on valuable ISR opportunities?” is an excellent one. A range of ‘podded’ collection and enabling capabilities have the potential to enhance the joint force tangibly. This post is the first of a three-part series that develops the discussion of the utility of modular mission augmentation capabilities beyond Full Motion Video (FMV). More specifically, this and subsequent posts will explore the idea of augmenting a platform’s existing mission set, rather than re-casting the platform in a separate air power role. These concepts could provide a significant boost to joint force capability with minimal interference to the airframe, training, operations and primary tasking of the platforms involved. I will use the term ‘pods’ throughout to collectively refer to pod, modular and roll-in/roll-off capabilities.

An FMV feed into a Royal Australian Air Force C-17 Globemaster was an early initiative of Plan JERICHO [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

Airborne ISR with FMV has been a revelation to global militaries over the last ten to fifteen years, but it has left a legacy of commanders and warfighters that are conditioned to having this capability overhead and watching their every move. There is absolutely a time and a place for such requirements, not least in Special Operations. FMV is excellent for providing intimate support to the current engagement; it is a visible, tangible contribution to the ‘current fight’ and surveillance. Supported ground forces innately understand the basic images available through the feed and can ‘see’ themselves and the enemy. However, FMV is rarely a tool of choice for timely and predictive decision advantage; at least with current analytical tools. It lacks stand-off range and requires that the platform remains on station for extended periods. There is a range of capabilities that provide significant utility to the joint force and complement the capabilities of FMV, in particular, ISR and multi-role mission augmentation pods.

In this post, I explore the potential utility of ISR and multi-role mission augmentation pods. In the second post of the series, I take a deeper look at some options that would realise this potential. The final post rounds out the series by providing vignettes on how mission augmentation pods may feature in the future battlespace.

The potential of podded capabilities

For ISR mission augmentation pods there are some clear candidates, the most promising of which are photographic Electro-Optical and Infra-Red Tactical Reconnaissance (TacRecce) and radars with Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) imaging and Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) capability.

However, ISR is certainly not the limit for mission augmentation pods; the capabilities that show the most potential are truly multi-role, not just simply ISR augmentation. There are three core ways of making mission augmentation pods ‘multi-role’; either to pack a number of sensors or other capabilities into one ‘pod’, to include a single device that is capable of conducting a number of tasks, or to create a pod with an architecture capable of rapid reconfiguration by ‘swapping’ sensors or devices.

The challenges of a future congested and contested communications environment provide significant opportunities for development in multi-role augmentation. Pods are already in service with other nations that combine a number of capabilities in one package; one area where this has already shown potential is for enhancing the communications capabilities of the joint force. Examples of useful pod communications node capabilities include relay, bridging, and data-translation across domains and dissimilar networks, including Line of Sight extension and a gateway between Beyond Line of Sight and tactical Line of Sight communications. According to open source, the US currently fields a pod called ‘TALON HATE’ that combines an Infra Red Search and Track (IRST) system with tactical communication bridging and datalink fusion. The IRST provides an instant capability enhancement to 4th-Gen fighters by giving the host platform a capability to track and target threats without using radar. The TALON HATE capability also provides a communications bridge between stealthy 5th-Gen data-links and those used by the rest of the force, including Link-16. This type of capability provides a significant force enhancement for the future fight; this allows 5th-Gen systems to combine the strengths of their sensors and stealthy penetrating capabilities with the firepower and diverse capabilities of older generation air power. Such capabilities might be as useful under the wing of a KC-30 or E-7 operating in an orbit as they might under the belly of an F-15C.

Perhaps the systems that offer the greatest potential to deliver truly dynamic multi-role effects to enhance the capabilities of a 5th-Gen joint force are Active Electronically Steered Array (AESA) radars. AESAs can provide true ‘multi-role’ effects in a single radar; they have the potential to conduct a broad range of radar and communications tasks. The SAR and GMTI tasks that I have already described are within the capabilities of an appropriately designed AESA. So too are passive radio-frequency surveillance, Electronic Counter Measures or Electronic Attack roles. In a trial in 2007, an F-22 RAPTOR AESA transmitted and received at 274-megabits per second to a ground station. The demonstration included the transfer of a 72MB SAR image in 3.5 seconds; this would have taken 48 minutes using Link 16. An AESA, therefore, has the potential to deliver some of the capability of the communications node pod, and much more besides. An AESA that has the capability to conduct even a few of these capabilities would be truly multi-role and a useful and flexible capability for the joint force.

Training, mission planning, communications and exploitation

Before I delve into a discussion of potential ISR mission pods, I need to deal with the foundational elephants in the room, namely the training, mission planning, communications and exploitation elements of any new systems. As the comments in response to Hay’s post suggest, there is a danger of overmatching the training capacity of fleets with the distraction of additional mission sets; the emphasis should, therefore, be on finding capabilities that can complement the extant role of the platform with minimal role training requirement.

The impost on aircrew, tasking authorities, communications networks and human analytical capacity would be a significant consideration for these capabilities. To mitigate these as much as possible automation and programmable prioritisation will be key. There is a spectrum of integration with the platform, from a ‘sealed box’ that simply requires power through to a system that is fully integrated with the aircraft. The ‘sealed box’, with uploaded machine-machine tasking from the Collection Management Authority and data off-boarded for exploitation, would provide the easiest capabilities for fleets to integrate into their routine operations. This type of system would be as close as possible to a ‘non-interference’ capability for the fleet. A ‘sealed box’ approach would require a mind-set change for Collection Management Authorities; there might be no ‘Priority 1’ collection requirements on a Collection Deck assigned to an ISR augmented platform because those are tasked to dedicated assets. The deck for the augmented platform might only include tasks that would otherwise not get supported; it might also cover requirements better serviced by sustained collect for seven hours rather than a single collect. At the other end of the spectrum, fully integrated systems would likely introduce complexity into mission planning, real-time sensor management needs and human analysis, either on-board or in networked direct support to the system.

It is reasonable to assume that ‘sealed box’ pods would not yield the level of data or responsiveness that the fully integrated systems could, but ‘sealed box’ systems offer some capability at a much lower financial and temporal cost, allowing it to be spread more widely across Air Force.

In addition to procedural considerations, there are some technical issues that would need to be addressed in the ‘sealed box’ example. As there would be no crew interactions with the equipment, sensors might need to be provided with prioritised and standardised machine-readable collection decks from the Air and Space Operations Centre (AOC) or other responsible Collection Management Authority. The sensor system would need to be able to automatically mission plan and manage the subsequent collect, adjusting and seizing opportunities based on the planned and executed flight plan, independent of mission crew input. Aircrew could simply retain the power management and safety responsibilities. This is not an aspirational technology; the Rafael RecceLite, a TacRecce variant of the popular LITENING Targeting Pod, can already do the key parts of this.

 Litening III Advanced Targeting pod, fitted to a Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18A Hornet [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

Litening III Advanced Targeting pod fitted to a Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18A Hornet [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

In future congested and contested electromagnetic environments, militaries will not have an unlimited degree of bandwidth or intelligence analysts. The logical response could, therefore, be for the sensor system to include on-board processing, such as image recognition, automatic change detection or pattern analysis that could highlight data that corresponded to the Essential Elements of Information (EEIs) tasked in the collection deck. If the pod had an organic communications capability or access to one via the host aircraft, it could then transmit ‘chip-out’ extracts of the relevant information to analysts or even Link 16 messages with text containing EEI related information to the appropriate decision makers. Again, this technology already exists; a Canberra-based not-for-profit UAV club has successfully used this type of capability on their home-built UAVs to win major international UAV challenges since 2012.

In the next post, I will look at two possible mission augmentation options that could potentially realise the capability advantages described above.

Squadron Leader Jimmy is a current serving RAAF Intelligence 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.