Advances in targeting pods and the flexibility of fighter aircraft to do more than drop bombs have given the U.S. military a unique capability to gather and disseminate real-time data on everything from enemy troop movements to urban areas of operation.
Non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), the notion of using existing systems already on aircraft to provide data that can be shared across platforms, among the services and even with coalition partners, has shown success in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The U.S. Marine Corps has been able to transition the Northrop Grumman LITENING targeting and sensor system, in use on the AV-8B Harrier and the F/A-18 Hornet, among other aircraft, from being just a targeting pod to now providing air and ground assets with the ability to pass live streaming video of the battlefield.
Northrop Grumman’s Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), flown on the U.S. Air Force E-8C (modified Boeing 707-300) aircraft, has been a workhorse. The system has logged thousands of hours since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, providing vital intelligence to combatant commanders. Now it is a candidate for a multi-platform radar technology upgrade, following cancellation earlier this year of the E-10 surveillance aircraft.
Before, data was indigenous just to the aircraft. Now, as the military moves forward into the era of interoperability, all the information on the aircraft is shareable not just by aircraft, but also by other services and other combatants involved in an operation. What is being learned with integrated advanced sensors, such as those on Lockheed Martin’s F-22A Raptor, is that those sensors can extend the reach of legacy platforms.
Today, the Marine Corps operates Boeing AV-8B Harriers and F/A-18 Hornets with the LITENING pod, a multi-sensor, laser targeting and navigation system that enables pilots to detect, acquire, track and identify ground targets for delivery of both conventional and precision-guided weapons. The system includes advanced image processing for identifying targets and generating coordinates, a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensor, charge-coupled device television sensors, laser designator/range finder, super zoom and air-to-ground data links.
Earlier this year, Northrop Grumman said the system had accumulated more than 600,000 operational hours with U.S. and allied forces.
The Marines is achieving non-traditional ISR using the Northrop Grumman equipment. "That system has proven to be invaluable from a non-traditional ISR aspect," said a Marine Corps official familiar with both the AV-8B and LITENING pod.
When the service first fielded the LITENING pod, it was a sensor on the airplane that provided an improved view over what a pilot could see by just eyeing an area, the Marine official said.
"With the ability to zoom in and look at targets, from there it was just explaining what you were seeing to whoever you were talking to on the ground, typically a forward air controller," he said. "Initially it was all verbal."
The Marine Corps then upgraded the pods with a video transmitter. It initially took the unit, a 25-watt C band analog signal transmitter, from the Pioneer unmanned aircraft system (UAS). It was a fairly rudimentary method of looking at video transmission.
The technology was also fairly old, 1980s vintage equipment, and it was heavy, the Marine official said. "It was not something that was man-portable, but it displayed a picture and streaming video, so real-time downlink video in the C band enabled Marines on the ground to see what Harrier pilots were seeing, with their LITENING pods."
In order to improve the video transmission, the Marine Corps took a step backwards, the official said, looking at newer, smaller, systems.
"We took the 10-watt Predator transmitter and put that in the LITENING pod. We thought it was going to be better because it was a digital data stream with video compression," the Marine official said. "We’ll potentially get better range out of it and a cleaner picture."
But the service soon discovered that the cleaner picture was only available at very close ranges and whenever any errors where observed. One problem was that the picture froze up and became unusable to those looking at it on the ground. So the digital transmitter was changed back to an analog one, with an analog picture, which improved the system’s range.
The other step the Marine Corps took in concert with upgrading the video downlink was moving from the man-portable receive station (MRS), developed for the Pioneer UAS. It wasn’t all that man portable, the official said.
"We went to the Rover receiver. [That is] what we are currently employing now over in theater," the official said. "For the Marine Corps’ purposes, from our non-traditional ISR aspect, C band is working for us. It is the band our Pioneers are using, and it is the band that the Shadow, which will replace the Pioneer, is using. So we are keeping within the same video downlink bandwidth at this point in time."
The LITENING pod also has an available bay, referred to as the "plug-and-play-bay," the official said. "We can put different weapons replaceable assemblies (WRA), or different kit, in [there] that have different transmitters to allow you to do video downlink."
The plug-and-play WRA I had the 10-watt analog transmitter, along with a recording device so that pilots can record what they are seeing.
"The next iteration is called the plug-and-play II, and this is really where we are on the edge of taking the next step into networking the battlefield from the non-traditional ISR standpoint, and really trying to make the products that you get from a targeting pod aspect available to more than just the individual that has this Rover receiver on the battlefield," the official said.
The plug-and-play II has a 25-watt transmitter that can either be analog or digital, because the Marine Corps liked the power output from the Pioneer transmitter, the official said.
The service also has installed a new video and data recorder in the Harrier that will record the streaming video. It’s a non-compressed recording, so that now for an intelligence quality debrief when the pilot returns, the non-compressed video can be downloaded and reviewed.
"[The] raw video is just awesome for being able to pick out specific things, things you can’t even display in your cockpit or that you can’t display on a receive station," the Marine said. "Now you are sitting there in a non-battlefield type environment and able to really analyze an image."
Another step to link aviation and ground assets has been the installation of an enhanced position location reporting system (EPLRS) radio into LITENING.
The pod has been equipped with a server as well, which will allow the Marines to record and catalog all the information gathered with LITENING, as well as any information that flows across the EPLRS network.
The EPLRS radios have worked very well as long as forces have line-of-sight. Once out of line-of-sight, the network starts to break down. The problem was solved by putting an aircraft overhead with the EPLRS capability.
"It joins the network and now provides that line-of-sight, while at the same time, because I have a server that stores and catalogs all the information that has been looked at with my LITENING pod, that information is now available or discoverable by somebody on the ground who has the ability to request it. That’s where we have gone with the plug-and-play II on the LITENING pod," the Marine official explained.
The concept of being able to transmit information gathered by the LITENING pod, and stored on its server, to anyone who requests it, was born out of Agile Lion, a demonstration sponsored by Marine Corps headquarters in December 2005.
"We utilized LITENING pods on AV-8s and F-18s as well as put a server and a radio in a KC-130 and AH-1 Cobra. We set up this network and demonstrated it," the Marine Corps official said. "Our next evolution of that is in a proposed Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) called CORPORAL," for Collaborative Online Reconnaissance Provider Operationally Responsive Attack Link.
CORPORAL is the marriage of two other Marine Corps JCTD proposals that were not funded in 2007: The Dynamic Integrated Combat Environment (DICE) and the Joint Electronic Attack Unmanned Vehicle (JEAUV).
The intent is to take any aircraft with a server and make its information discoverable on the network. It will enable non-traditional ISR, basically on demand, to a user on the ground or to somebody in an aircraft, for example a Marine sitting in the back of a MV-22 Osprey troop commander work station.
"This is a very early step in the transition of non-traditional ISR to where I think the Marine Corps is going with F-35 in networking the battlefield," said the Marine official.
At this writing, the Marine Corps briefed Pentagon officials on CORPORAL and the program was in the review chain at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.
"All indications at this point are that CORPORAL is progressing and we are doing very well within the JCTD review," the Marine official said. He added that the service would demonstrate CORPORAL in the FY08, FY09 timeframe.
Even with the advances that LITENING brings and Joint Strike Fighter will bring, the services are still woefully short of platforms to provide non-traditional ISR, said Dave Nagy, vice president of Northrop Grumman’s Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Programs.
In February 2007, the Air Force cancelled the E-10 program, a new ISR platform the company had been developing. The E-10 was to be a testbed for the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP).
"We took the E-10 out because it was a singular [demonstration] not going to be replicated," a senior Air Force official told reporters during a Pentagon briefing in February. "There may be other ways to do that [mission]."
The Senate Armed Services Committee in mark-up language for the FY08 Defense Authorization bill, said: "Although the Air Force cancelled the E-10 program, it is looking to modernize some or all of the existing E-8 JSTARS aircraft with an MP-RTIP radar system." The committee recommended $275 million — $178 million from the cancelled E-10 program, plus an additional $97 million — to begin the effort to backfit MP-RTIP technology to the E-8 JSTARS.
"The E-10, as a result of the ’08 budget cycle, will cease to exist. That will be the end of E-10," said Nagy.
"The question DoD has to answer for itself, given that we spent over a billion dollars on large radar and some integration activities, is how do we preserve much of that investment for the good of the warfighter? Someone has to make those decisions, and time is short to make all that happen because ’08 is a pivotal decision year for trying to keep key elements in place."
There is not enough capability to go around to meet all the needs the services have, Nagy said. That was one of the reasons for the E-10, to augment the force structure and provide more flexibility for combatant commanders.
"We are a bit out of balance in terms of how much attention we pay to the tip-of-the-spear resources versus those that allow us to find targets," Nagy said.
"Another way to say it is, we are better than anyone else in the world by far [at] interdicting any target that we need to, but the shortfall is in finding the targets and providing the information to that significant capability that we have to prosecute targets. The investment strategy needs a closer look to determine what the right balance is of all those investment priorities."
Although Northrop Grumman took a hit with the E-10 cancellation, its JSTARS system, a low-density, high-demand fleet, continues to be extensively called upon to deliver critical information, Nagy said. There are not enough of the aircraft, and those in operation have too many taskings.
JSTARS continues to perform well, having flown more than 23,000 hours in Southwest Asia, longer than any other Air Force weapon system.
"We have found JSTARS has at least as high leverage, if not more, in the non-traditional ISR environment or the GWOT (global war on terror) where you don’t have a line of demarcation between the good guys and the bad guys, but you have a compelling requirement to understand what is happening on the ground and to be able to do multiple kinds of coordination and operations on the ground simultaneously," Nagy said.
The radar on JSTARS is the best and most advanced ground surveillance radar that exists anywhere in the world today, Nagy said.
"Having said that, it is a 20-year old technology and we are coming to see, as you do in all weapons systems, after a period of time the need to address the diminishing supplier base for the old technology," Nagy said. "There are several ways to do that. One is the classic way that is done in sustainment — you redesign a piece part that someone doesn’t manufacture, you have someone else try to reverse engineer, or redesign it, and you wind up with the same capability at increased cost. Or you take a more strategic approach and do something like the Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program."
Nagy said MP-RTIP is a perfect solution as the next-generation technology to implement on JSTARS.
"It is an order magnitude improvement in terms of its ability to provide situational awareness and detailed information of the ground environment. It opens up the air domain. It’s just a fantastic, revolutionary step forward in this mission area and is the right solution for JSTARS for the future," Nagy said.
In 2006, Northrop Grumman implemented the interim capability for airborne networking (ICAN) on JSTARS. Nagy called it "IP-enabling" the platform. ICAN allows JSTARS to interact with the ground environment through e-mail and chat rooms, and sends information in real-time back and forth, from operations, to information on specific targets, to weather reports, to trouble-shooting maintenance issues.
"It is a whole different operating paradigm, and it’s just proved to be significant to the warfighter," Nagy said. "The warfighter is now looking to an upgrade to that which will broaden the pipes, because that’s a relatively narrow band communications environment. We’ll broaden the pipes so we can get more information to more consumers and do more of it simultaneously."
Another concept of non-traditional ISR that Northrop Grumman is beginning to examine is how to exploit the sensors and information on fighter aircraft.
"It’s pretty clear they’ve got good sensors on those fighters today and there ought to be a way to exploit them for the good of the entire network," Nagy said. "But I think we are just beginning to scratch the surface there. They can contribute and should contribute but it is not a replacement for this large power aperture command and control capability that [JSTARS] provides. They are very different."
A single-seat fighter, whether it has all the data from the environment or not, is not going to be able to do battle management and control of large area, Nagy said. The flip side is, fighters are platforms that in some operating environments need to be very quiet. And in those environments, they will be receiving but not transmitting. So there will need to be a capability to exploit a fighter’s information when it’s available, Nagy said.