The Australian Defence Force will soon acquire an important new platform that will enhance its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, focusing on electronic intelligence (ELINT) and signals intelligence (SIGINT) gathering.
The US Defense Department recently revealed that several Gulfstream G550 executive jets will be modified by L-3 Communications Mission Integration in Texas under a under a US$93.6 million USAF foreign military sales (FMS) contract, with the capability being introduced into operational service by the end of next year.
The G550 performance envelope boasts a long range of 6,750nm (12,501km), a high subsonic cruise of Mach 0.885, and a short take-off and landing distance. That makes it a truly strategic platform, able to range far and wide across the Indo-Pacific region to perform vital intelligence gathering and other specialised tasks. It is by definition a high value asset for the ADF.
Although the Australian government is yet to officially comment on the acquisition, it seems highly likely that Australia will follow the lead set by other countries which operate the platform and emphasise the ISR role for the aircraft. A total of 37 states operate nearly 200 aircraft in support of a variety of government and military service special missions ranging from the more mundane executive transport through to more esoteric roles such as strategic reconnaissance, SIGINT and ELINT, and to assist with the development of radar and electronic systems.
The G550 is also a candidate for the replacement of the USAF E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARs) program, which allows ground surveillance, battle management and the command and control of aircraft from one platform. International operators, apart from the US, include the Japanese Coast Guard; the Israeli Air Force, which operates the two types of G550 aircraft in an ISR ‘Special Electronic Mission Aircraft’ role as well as Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) role; Singapore, which operates the CAEW variant; and Germany which operates the aircraft to undertake high altitude atmospheric research, with Italy also a new customer for the CAEW variant.
Australia is now set to join this group of nations with its own acquisition of the platform for specialised roles. The acquisition of the G550 therefore allows Australia to strengthen military-to military-cooperation with some key partners, including the US, Japan and Singapore, and benefit from their operational experience.
The Gulfstream G550 purchase is an important step forward for ADF capability development, as it retires the ageing, though capable, EP-3 ELINT version of the venerable AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft, and looks forward to acquiring eight P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft (with a possibility of a further four aircraft) and up to seven of the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton UAVs.
Both the P-8As and the Triton UAVs will be based at RAAF Base Edinburgh, and although no formal statement on the deployment of the Gulfstream has been announced by the Department of Defence, it seems sensible to co-locate those aircraft at Edinburgh to help build greater mission commonality and enhance the ADF’s ability to coordinate complex intelligence gathering missions that occur within a joint operational environment. Ensuring that all three different platforms can ‘plug and play’ within a joint network-centric battlespace is vital, as is ensuring that they can share information in real time with a variety of other air, sea and land forces when operationally necessary.
The capabilities suggested by existing platforms such as the E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft can be significantly enhanced if it can network with off-board sensors provided by the G550 in an ISR role. So the acquisition of the G550 platform is significant, as is the prospective sensor suite aboard those aircraft, but just as important will be ensuring the ability to establish full and secure connectivity across the spectrum of ADF capabilities and at all levels from strategic to tactical.
The ADF is expected to acquire two Gulfstream G550s. Although ELINT and SIGINT roles are likely to be a high priority for the ADF acquisition, the adaptability of the G550 platform across a wide variety of specialised roles suggests an argument could be made to acquire a higher number of platforms to add greater flexibility and readiness to the ADF in terms of both intelligence gathering capabilities, as well as other types of specialised combat support or service support tasks.
A two-aircraft buy would limit the ability of the Gulfstream G550 force to sustain a high operational tempo during a crisis, potentially opening intelligence gaps that an adversary could then exploit. Much of course will depend on how the 2016 Defence White Paper will be funded, to what extent ADF strategy evolves and how tasks for the ADF are prioritised given the emerging strategic outlook facing Australia.
Given the high value of the G550 as an ISR asset, operating the aircraft will be challenging, particularly in contested airspace, given the limited range (590nm) of future ADF combat aircraft such as the F-35A JSF that would be tasked to provide escort. It’s therefore essential that the G550 sensor capability has a long reach in both terrestrial terms and across the electromagnetic spectrum so that the aircraft can operate in a manner that allows it to stand-off beyond the reach of emerging anti-access and area denial threats (A2AD) such as long-range advanced fighter aircraft and long-range ground-based air defence systems.
In the future it may be possible to complement a G550 capability with advanced unmanned platforms that can operate inside an A2AD envelope, with the G550 acting as a mothership, or potentially, exploiting low-cost small satellite technology for dedicated intelligence gathering purposes. But for now, it’ll be the G550 together with the other ISR assets held by the ADF such as the P-8A Poseidon, the MQ-4C Triton and the E-7A Wedgetail that must ensure the ADF can maintain a knowledge edge over an adversary.