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Air Force to run wars from sensor-packed jets: as the MC2A aircraft program moves along, Air Force keeps options open.

A multibilion-dollar program to develop an airborne command-and control hub is likely to challenge the Air Force's ability to manage what is, by all accounts, one of the most technically complex military platforms ever built.

A brainchild of the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John Jumper, the multi-sensor command and control aircraft is not only intended to replace the current fleet of surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, but it also could become a flying command post of sorts, allowing the United States to plan and execute air wars on short notice, and making the Air Force less dependent on ground-based air operations centers.

After Jumper unveiled the MC2A concept more than two years ago, a great deal of confusion ensued, primarily about what exactly MC2A was supposed to accomplish and whether the Air Force was prepared to spend the tens of billions of dollars it would cost to replace the entire fleet of 33 AWACS early-warning planes, 17 Joint STARS ground-surveillance platforms and 14 Rivet Joint signals-intelligence aircraft.

The thinking on MC2A has evolved considerably since 2001, according to sources close to the program. It is no longer viewed as an effort to replace existing aircraft, but rather as an opportunity for the Air Force to push the boundaries of current sensor and battle-management technologies.

Initially, Jumper's idea was to try to consolidate the AWACS, Joint STARS and Rivet Joint functions into one Boeing 767 platform. That is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, said experts, although it is conceivable that, depending on how quickly technology matures, the ground-surveillance and the airborne early-warning functions could be combined into a single aircraft.

For now, the Air Force plans to only fund a ground-surveillance version of the MC2A, called Spiral 1. An industry team--made up of Northrop Grumman Corp., Boeing Co. and Raytheon Co.--is under contract to build five aircraft by 2013, to be named E-10A.

Early next year, the Air Force will select a contractor team for the battle management command and control systems in the E-10A. Three teams are competing--one led by Northrop Grumman, another by Boeing and. General Dynamics, and a third team that includes Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and SAIC.

The 10-year program to field five E-10As will cost about $5 billion.

The Spiral 1 of MC2A essentially is a more cutting-edge version of Joint STARS. It will have the so-called Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion, a GMTI (ground moving target indicator) sensor capable of tracking ground targets and low-flying cruise missiles. It electronically scans the target area without any refresh delays, effectively acting like an eye that never blinks.

"A lot of the mission in the E-10A is exactly the same as Joint STARS," said Chris Hernandex, Northrop Grumman's vice president for Air Force surveillance programs. "The basic airborne ground surveillance for Spiral 1 is almost exactly the way it is on JSTARS today. ... You have to track moving targets, rag them, ID them and watch them."

Northrop Grumman, which makes the Joint STARS, is the prime contractor for the E-10A. "A lot of the engineering talent from Joint STARS is going to roll right into MC2A," Hernandez said in an interview. "As we come down off the production of Joint Stars, we'll be ramping up for E-10A."

The only new mission added to the E-10A is cruise missile defense.

An MC2A equipped with the MP-RTIP sensor would give the United States a capability to defend ground troops from cruise missile attacks.

"Today, we can do air, ground surveillance and passive signals intelligence. But what we can't do is cruise missile defense," said an industry expert. "We don't have anything that gives theater-wide coverage."

If MC2A had been available during the recent war in Iraq, two aircraft could have provided coverage over the entire country, this expert said.

To locate cruise missiles and accurately track their trajectory, the MP-RTIP would focus energy on an area about 30 degrees wide, Hernandez explained. The radar works like a flashlight that beams electromagnetic energy on a target. The decision on which 30-degree area needs coverage comes from a higher command authority. "We don't have enough energy to search the whole [360-degree] space," Hernandex said.

Beyond Spiral 1, the future of MC2A is uncertain. "We know for sure what we want to do in Spiral 1, but I am not sure what Spiral 2 looks like, it's not important right now," said Air Force Brig. Gen. Edward Mahan, director of information dominance. "Spiral contents will be determined by what technology is ready when, what the war-fighter priorities are, and what is funded," he told an Air Force conference m Dayton, Ohio.

Preliminary plans for Spiral 2 would focus on a 360-degree AMTI [air moving-target indicator] sensor. But that technology has yet to be defined and is not likely to be funded for several years, said Bob Smart, Air Force deputy director for information dominance.

Before it commits to any particular system, the Air Force wants to complete an "analysis of alternatives" in about two years, Smart said at a recent news conference in Arlington, Va. More studies also are needed to determine how to go about developing the Spiral 3 of MC2A, for the signals-intelligence mission. All three versions of MC2A will be Boeing 767-400 airframes.

The 767 is the most desirable platform, officials said, because it is large enough to install the needed workstations and communications equipment to command an air war from the sky. There also is enough room to fit auxiliary power units to support the sensors and intensive computer-processing operations. Unlike current AWACS and Rivet Joint aircraft, the 767 is compliant with mandated international standards for noise, radio communications and emissions, known as GATM (Global Air Traffic Management). The Air Force's new air-refueling tankers also will be 767 airframes.

The decision to start the MC2A program with the ground-surveillance version puzzled many observers, who questioned whether it made sense, given that the current Joint STARS are newer 707 airframes, compared to the much older AWACS 707 airframes and the aged Rivet Joint platforms.

Asked whether the Air Force possibly was structuring the program backwards, Smart said that the current state of the technology and funding already committed to the MP-RTIP program led the service to conclude that Spiral 1 should be the ground-surveillance aircraft.

The Air Force already has budgeted funds to upgrade the Joint STARS to a 767 aircraft and to install the MP-RTIP "It seemed logical that we would continue upgrading the GMTI capability, because the MP-RTIP already was on the books," Smart said. "At that time, in fairness, our intent was to put an AMTI capability on the same platform. We realized maybe that was a technology leap too far at that time. Now, we are trying to step back and develop a strategy that incrementally would get us to a GMTI-AMTI capability."

An industry source said the approach makes sense, given the risks in a complex system such as MC2A. "The Air Force wants to walk before they run," he said. Rushing to combine GMTI and AMTI sensors would be a mistake, the source said. "The MP-RTIP is very sophisticated. They want to bolt it on, and stabilize it, and understand the characteristics before they put another sensor on top. ... You have to make sure the frequencies they operate in do not step on each other. If they do, then you jam yourself."

Combining GMTI, AMTI and signals-intelligence on one aircraft has been ruled our. Technologically, it is not possible to have radars transmitting energy at the same time that operators are trying to listen for enemy transmissions. "By and large, everyone has realized that the Rivet Joint platform has to be separate from JSTARS and AWACS," said the industry source.

Another reason why the Air Force wanted to accelerate the GMTI version of the MC2A, he explained, has to do with the reality of today's conflicts, where the primary focus is to find targets on the ground or relatively close to the ground, such as missile launchers, tanks, low-flying cruise missiles and helicopters.

By developing MC2A in incremental steps, the Air Force is leaving the door open for other options, before it commits large amounts of money to the program, the source noted. "There are other alternatives they are looking at, other than MC2A."

One option would be to substitute MC2As with Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, equipped with MP-RTIP radar. The radar developers, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, already are working on a smaller version of MP-RTIP for the Global Hawk.

Similarly, the Air Force is considering employing UAVs for the Rivet Joint mission, said Kernan N. Chaisson, senior electronics analyst at Forecast International.

The perceived vagueness in the MC2A program requirements has frustrated contractors, who typically prefer to get clear, precise instructions and long-term funding commitments from their customers.

"This is very difficult for people, because in previous years we had firm requirements documents that we would give to industry [to] go build a system," said Brig. Gen. Michael Snodgrass, Air Force deputy director for operational capabilities requirements. "It is very difficult to have a capability which is relatively soft, compared to a KPP [key performance parameter], and have people want to invest a lot of dollars," he said in an interview at the Air Force conference in Dayton.

The Air Force, he said, favors a flexible course of action in the development of MC2A, mostly because it wants to be able to adapt the program to the state of the technology.

The industry expert, who requested to not be quoted by name, said the Air Force is wise to rake that approach. "The MC2A is at the point the Internet was in the early 80s: they knew they had a powerful tool but they couldn't figure our all the possible applications."

Most exciting to the Air Force is the prospect of having a battle-management platform for the joint force air commander to operate from, the source said. "Some decisions have to be made right there, where the information is processed," he said.

Despite the sophisticated communications systems available to send data back to a ground base (known as "reach-back" technology), Air Force leaders would prefer to have a battle-command airplane, where the fidelity of the sensors is higher and the sensor-to-shooter timeline is much shorter. "There is way too much latency in reach-back," he said. "When you have many sensors that you are trying to coordinate simultaneously, the reach-back doesn't work. The timeline becomes too long."
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Author:Erwin, Sandra I.
Publication:National Defense
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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