In the final of his three-post series exploring the potential utility of podded capabilities for the Royal Australian Air Force, Squadron Leader Jimmy uses vignettes to explain how pod-augmented capabilities could be used to enhance air power’s contribution to operations.

In my previous two posts I have highlighted the potential of ISR and Multi-Mission Augmentation Pods, and identified some practical options that could expand the utility of the Royal Australian Air Force’s current fleet. I close out my series by describing how I envision these capabilities could actually be employed.

Conceptual Vignette One: Defence Aid to the Civil Community following a large scale natural disaster – C-27J equipped with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) and a tactical reconnaissance (TacRecce) pod

There is a large and fast moving bush fire, akin to the January 2016 bush fire, that is raging between Mandurah and Bunbury in Western Australia. A C-27J is tasked to deliver emergency supplies to the airfield of a local country town that is hosting a large regional evacuation point. In addition to the required aid and supplies, the C-27J is equipped with an AESA pod and a TacRecce pod.

Prior to launch the Air and Space Operations Centre (AOC) receives an update from the Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) on the situation, including the latest location of the fire front and an estimated location for the fire front when the C-27J reaches the area. Intelligence and ISR specialists in the AOC use this overview to quickly create a collection deck for the C-27J’s pods, which the pods’ on-board processors can automatically analyse and report against. The collection deck is emailed to 35 Squadron, the RAAF’s C-27J squadron, before the aircraft departs RAAF Richmond, New South Wales en route directly to the country Western Australia destination.

As the C-27J comes into sensor range of the fire area the pods begin collecting against the collection deck. The AESA prioritises GMTI (Ground Moving Target Indicator) and the TacRecce pod images large swathes of the area. The GMTI collect is focussed on looking for traffic abnormalities; gaps in traffic activity on routes that were assessed to be open prior to launch, any areas of significant traffic activity within the fire zone and evacuated areas with vehicle activity. All of theses activities that are automatically identified by the pod systems, are internally cross-cued so that each report consists of MTI data and chip outs of SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar), EO (Electro-Optic) and IR (Infra-Red) imagery of the activity of interest. These ‘point outs’ could identify areas or routes that have been closed by the fire that DFES are not currently aware of, or traffic jams caused by rapidly changing road conditions. The route assessment could also indicate routes still in local use, or unmarked secondary routes being used by locals that DFES may not otherwise have been aware of. The evacuated areas with vehicle activity could indicate isolated persons that are potentially at immediate risk, or looters. All of this automatically analysed and ‘flagged’ data could be data-linked off-board for human analysis and decision support. These analysts might be forward deployed with DFES or back in DGS-AUS (Distributed Ground Station-Australia) providing near real-time analysis and in direct communication with DFES.

A bushfire closes a road in Western Australia in Jan 2016. Image Credit: AAP/DFES

A bushfire closes a road in Western Australia in Jan 2016. Image Credit: AAP/DFES

Upon landing at the isolated country airfield, whilst the supplies are unloaded, the unclassified geo-referenced and orthorectified TacRecce imagery, with an overlay of annotations based on the GMTI analysis is downloaded and disseminated along the lines suggested by Paul Hay in a previous post on this blog. Whilst on the ground, the Bush Fire Brigade (BFB) commander highlights that one of the areas of significant activity identified by the GMTI is under imminent threat from the fire front, and the fire has knocked out the telephone network in the area. After completing the unload, the C-27J heads directly to the threatened area whilst en route to Perth and changes the mode of the AESA pod from GMTI to a high powered directional Wi-Fi router. This Wi-Fi capability is used to send a message directly to any Wi-Fi enabled phones in the area, containing an imminent threat warning and route recommendation.

After completing this activity, the C-27J lands in Perth and downloads all TacRecce data, with the appropriate annotations, for use by DFES at the regional level. This high resolution orthorectified imagery could be quickly added to geospatial tools on the ground to provide a post-disaster image overlay to extant imagery and mapping. It could even be added from the deployed environment or by DGS-AUS to open source geospatial tools such as Google Earth to complement open source and social media based disaster response activities such as Google Crisis Response.

Conceptual Vignette Two: Operations in Iraq and Syria – SAR / GMTI Equipped KC-30

A SAR / GMTI pod is mounted via a replacement of a passenger door on a KC-30 in a tanker orbit over Iraq. The tanker orbits above northern Iraq for at least four hours.

A Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport returns from a mission over Iraq. Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

A Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport returns from a mission over Iraq. [Image Credit: Commonwealth of Australia]

The sensor independently collects against a pre-planned collection deck without impacting the tanker’s primary task. SAR change detection is used to monitor locations of interest for activity every 15 minutes. When it detects changes, such as the arrival of vehicles, a geo-referenced and time stamped chip out of the relevant before and after images is sent to an ISR Duty Officer (ISRDO) in the Combined Air and Space Operations Centre (CAOC) for follow up.

Concurrently, once a baseline understanding of activity has been established, automated pattern analysis of the GMTI data for significant changes in pattern of activity is applied. Automatically generated indications of a change in activity could be used to internally cue a SAR image of the location of interest; a chip out of the MTI data of interest, the assessment of activity and an accompanying SAR image of the location could be sent via the KC-30’s SATCOM to the ISR Operations Duty Officer in the CAOC for intelligence fusion and further investigation. This could include activity in areas of low civilian population on routes assessed to be used by threat actors for resupply or attack preparation.

The GMTI collect is also uploaded to coalition GMTI databases in real-time for retrospective analysis, which could provide significant value in understanding traffic patterns, the status of known and unknown routes and potentially curfew times in threat areas.

Dare to dream; Ad Astra!

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.