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High Spy. But will the UAE spy-planes be up to the challenge?

Posted 8 November 2018 · Add Comment

Are the UAE’s new spy-planes modern enough? Alan Warnes has been finding out.

Special mission aircraft are no stranger to Middle East skies, where spy-planes have helped to dowse the terrorist threat, notably from Daesh and al Qaeda.
The ability to monitor, either visually or by signal, and then download to the ground commander is a great asset. Interpreting what the aircraft can see then converts into allied troops and their aircraft taking action.
Aircraft are fitted with all kinds of sensors and usually it will take more than one type to cover differing roles. However, as some air forces, like Algeria, have found to their cost, you can’t just put lots of equipment in a proposed spy-plane without the necessary power. Having the power is the name of the game; so most countries are now going for bigger business jets or fully fledged airliners so they can gather more information, and not trying to have one aircraft to cover all roles.
The UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, feels it is one of the most threatened among the Middle East countries, so has a mix of special mission aircraft to monitor their enemies.
It has two special mission aircraft programmes being developed in Europe, both involving the Global 6000 airframe.
In Sweden, there is the GlobalEye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C), which was unveiled earlier this year, with the first of three aircraft on order making its debut flight from Saab’s Linkoping facility on March 14.
At Cambridge, UK, there are two Global 6000s being developed under Project Dolphin by Marshalls and QinetiQ. There has been much intrigue over these aircraft because they arrived at Cambridge in late-2012 and nothing happened with the communication intelligence (COMINT) conversion until 2015. And, unlike Saab, neither Marshalls nor QinetiQ will talk about the project.
The main reason for the delay in the conversion was because the system initially being worked on by an interim contractor allegedly would not work. In a bid to save the deal, QinetiQ got involved.
Under Project Dolphin, the Global 6000s are being fitted out with electronic intelligence/signals intelligence (ELINT/SIGINT) systems and, so far, one has been test-flown from Cambridge Airport.
They are believed to have cost the AED $120 million ($32.7m) for the two jets and an additional $98 million for the systems, acquired through a shell company, known as Advanced Integrated Systems (AIS).
That’s expensive, but still considerably less than the $1.2 billion the UAE has paid Saab, which is providing three Erieye airborne electronically scanned array (AESA) radars and significant transfer of technology.
Undoubtedly, both the Saab and Marshall/QinetiQ systems will have to work together.
It has been more than a year since the first aircraft (1326) made its inaugural flight on June 21 2017 and, just a few days short of that first anniversary – from June 11-14 – the aircraft spent four days at Boscombe Down, where QinetiQ has one of its key sites. The other aircraft (1327) has been seen ground-running but, so far, has not flown.
While Marshalls has carried out much of the Project Dolphin engineering work, it is QinetiQ that is integrating the AS-5 surveillance system, which will form the spine of the aircraft. Sensors from other companies being fitted on to the jets will feed the information into a sophisticated computer system. This can then be monitored by image analysts or airborne electronic warfare officers and will fit into the UAE’s bigger air defence system. Most of the interpretation will take place in the UAE’s Air Warfare Centre.
The AS-5 system, which is integrated on the UK Royal Air Force RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft, is part of Cobham’s ASX airborne communications electronic surveillance set-up. According to QinetiQ, its ASX series of COMINT/direction-finding systems support all airborne electronic surveillance platforms. These include the AS-3 for smaller unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), which was displayed at the Farnborough International Airshow in 2014 on a DA42, and the bigger AS-4, which utilises an array of high-accuracy antennas for UAVs and other manned applications.
Then there is the AS-5, which QinetiQ claims is “a full specification for strategic airborne applications that can be fitted to business jets”.
While no one at QinetiQ would talk about Project Dolphin, the company’s website says that AS-5 “is able to intercept high volumes of signals traffic over a vast operational area with very high accuracy direction finding for geolocation at stand-off ranges”.
It adds: “All ASX systems can be remotely operated by datalink using our innovative bandwidth management technology.”
These ELINT aircraft can accommodate more aerials and have high levels of energy to geo-locate the signals, then overlay the position on a tactical map so the exact location can be determined.
However, one wonders how sophisticated this system really is. It was probably defined several years ago, when the political and geospatial situation was so different from how it is now.
Today, most developed countries’ air defence focus has changed massively, with anti-access area denial (A2AD) a top priority. This means the targeting of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), like the Russian S-300s populating the Iranian coastlines in the northern Persian Gulf, has to be a top priority (even more so if they acquire the S-400).
However, as an electronic warfare expert said: “Chinese, Russian and Iranian systems have super complex radars that are software waveform defined but the UAE Global 6000s set-up is likely to focus on old-fashioned ways of collecting signals data.
“In the old times, you were collecting data and collating the signatures of the radar frequencies (RF) through sensors. You were able to characterise them and put them into an electronic signature warfare library, as well as include them in a fighter’s radar warning receiver (RWR). However, the new modern SAM radars boast sophisticated wave forms generated by algorithms, meaning that that the frequencies are consistently changing and morphing all the time. So the threat library will be out-dated!”
The UAE is not believed to have the electronic warfare expertise required and, according to one source, does not understand the complexity of the hostile environment to carry out a modern concept of operations. So, these aircraft, primarily used for air defence, may be packed with an airborne radar, sensors, antennae farms and look impressive, but are they doing things the old way.
Plotting the threats of the enemy’s systems and trying to stop them has changed dramatically in recent years because of the new waveform radar. The source continued: “When working in such a complex environment, you need to integrate artificial intelligence that can process the complex signals and transmit them in a form which could lead to a strike suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) package.”
As it is, the UAE Air Force & Air Defence may be one of the most modern air forces in the world, but it doesn’t work the sensor-to-shooter way yet, so airborne early warning and control aircraft currently operating do not datalink the recognised air picture to the fighters.
Maybe the Global 6000s will resolve this, but it is very likely the on-board systems are already out-dated.

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