SPACE V AIRBORNE ISR OR MIX AND MATCH
Asian Military Review|April/May 2021
Owning satellite based ISR for military use is still an exclusive ‘club’, but airborne ISR still provides that most countries need.
Martin Streetly

Until relatively recently, satellite-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) was restricted to an exclusive club that was made up of the world’s technological and military ‘superpowers’. Here, security considerations, enormous cost and the sheer difficulty in placing something like a 19.5-metre long KH series imaging satellite in orbit ensured the exclusivity of the ‘club’. For those able to capitalise on the technology, the rewards were (and are) enormous, with an American Lockheed KH-11 Kennen/ Crystal system being postulated as having a six-centimetre ground sampling distance from an altitude of 155 miles (250 kilometres). Again, orbiting satellites have been relatively invulnerable to attack (although America, China and Russia have all looked at antisatellite technology over time), offer global coverage and total persistence until orbital decay sets in when their power and fuel supplies are exhausted. In this latter context, it is interesting that America’s Space Shuttle was developed partly as a re-usable ‘service station’ to keep the country’s in-orbit fleet of imaging and signals intelligence (SIGINT) satellites operational for as long as possible.

For those countries outside this ‘charmed circle’, air vehicles offer a much more affordable means of collecting ISR data. As much as anything, this has been driven by developments in sensor and business aircraft technology that today enable aircraft such as Textron Aviation’s King Air turboprops or Gulfstream ‘bisjets’ to carry sensor suites that can include surveillance radar, electro-optical (EO) and infra-red (IR) imagers and signals collection equipment in a unified whole. Again, advances in communications technology allow such platforms to deliver real-time data to remote control/analysis/dissemination centres using high capacity line-of-sight and/or satellite links. To such manned platforms, we can now add unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that can range in size from hand-launched to behemoths such as the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk. Not only do these provide the whole gamut of sensor types (with carriage being dependent only on available space and power) but also at the highest end of the scale, persistence measured in days. However, those behind the technology seem to be on the cusp of creating operationally viable high altitude pseudo satellites (HAPS) that are capable of lifting a variety of payloads (including imagers) to very high altitudes for very long periods of time. By way of example (and because it is one of the few HAPS that have been described in other than general details), the Prismatic/BAE PHASA-35 vehicle is designed for surveillance, communications, remote sensing and environmental science applications and is specified for operations at altitudes of between 55,000 feet - 70,000 feet (16,700m-21,300m) for up to a year at a time at altitudes of up to 35 degrees. Power is provided by a configurable GaAs solar array and Li-ion battery packs and the air vehicle can accommodate a 15kg (33lb) mass payload. Here, 300-1,000 Watts of continuous DC power is offered. Again, PHASA-35 requires no dedicated launch and recovery facilities, with launch being ‘automatic assisted’ and recovery being ‘automatic glide’. PHASA-35 made its first flight on 17 February 2020 and as of late January 2021, flight trials in the US were planned. Overall, co-developer BAE bills that type as being a “persistent and affordable alternative to satellites” that is “combined with the flexibility of an aircraft”.

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