The ADF’s ambitious efforts to build a world-class joint force electronic warfare capability will soon be bolstered by the high-flying Peregrine
By Andrew McLaughlin
This article appeared in the Nov-Dec 2019 issue of ADBR.
The RAAF’s MC-55A Peregrine electronic warfare support system project will soon hit a key milestone, with the delivery of the fourth and final ‘green’ Gulfstream G550 airframe to the US Air Force for modification under the Peregrine program.
Three aircraft are already at Greenville and are being prepared to receive the all-important sensors, mission systems and other modifications. After that, a comprehensive test campaign will follow prior to deliveries to the RAAF commencing in early 2023.
MC-55A will initially be a unique designation for the RAAF’s missionised G550s, whereas other operators use variations of the US Department of Defense’s C-37 designation, or just retain the G550.
The aircraft are delivered from Gulfstream’s Savannah, Georgia factory to Greenville with most of the external modifications already completed during manufacture. Gulfstream has a long history of producing missionised versions of its high-flying and long-ranging business jets, and the G550 in particular has been modified more than most.
While there had been some rumours in 2015 that a new G550-based EW capability was being considered for the RAAF, first official confirmation of the project and the MC-55 designation came in the 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP) and supporting Integrated Investment Plan (IIP).
‘From the early 2020s, Defence will acquire up to five long-range electronic warfare support aircraft based on the Gulfstream G550 airframe with additional and modified systems,’ the IIP reads. ‘This capability will substantially enhance electronic warfare support to naval, air and land forces for operations in electromagnetic environments manipulated by hostile forces, with the operating cost, range and endurance benefits of a commercial airframe.
‘The aircraft will be acquired in two tranches and incrementally upgraded to maintain commonality with the United States-developed systems for long-term supportability and to maintain interoperability.’
Shortly after, then Defence Minister Senator Marise Payne revealed the MC-55A designation for the first time in her keynote address to the March 2016 Airpower Conference in Canberra. But curiously, any reference to this has been omitted from the official online transcript of her speech.
In a June 2017 notification, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) advised Congress that the US State Department had approved a ‘possible foreign military sale (FMS) to Australia for Gulfstream G550 aircraft modified to integrate Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Electronic Warfare (AISREW) mission systems.’
The notification added that Australia had requested ‘up to five G550’ aircraft, and that the then estimated US$1.3bn (A$1.92bn) package included the mission systems, GPS capabilities, secure communications, aircraft defensive systems, aircraft modification and integration, flight test and certification, and associated ground systems. The package also included spares, US Govt and contractor engineering services, logistics, and program support.
‘The proposed sale supports and complements the ongoing efforts of Australia to modernize its electronic warfare capability and increases interoperability between the USAF and the RAAF,’ the notification added.
The next public release of information about the project came in July 2018 when the US DoD awarded L3 Technologies a US$83m (A$122m) contract for the upgrade of the first two G550s for the RAAF. The contract announcement also named the USAF’s 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, also known as ‘Big Safari’, based at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio as the contracting authority. Big Safari has extensive experience with the design and development of airborne electronic intelligence (ELINT) capabilities in a classified environment.
In March 2019, the Commonwealth formally announced that four MC-55As would be acquired for A$2.46bn. Former Defence Minister Christopher Pyne and then Minister for Defence Industry Senator Linda Reynolds announced the acquisition of the aircraft in a March 18 joint statement which confirmed the aircraft will be based at RAAF Edinburgh near Adelaide alongside RAAF Surveillance & Response Group (SRG) P-8A Poseidon, MQ-4C Triton and MQ-9 Predator/Reaper intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems.
“The Peregrine is a new airborne electronic warfare capability that will be integrated into Defence’s joint warfighting networks, providing a critical link between platforms, including the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, E-7A Wedgetail, EA-18G Growler, Navy’s surface combatants and amphibious assault ships and ground assets to support the warfighter,” former Minister Pyne said in the statement.
“This capability and the people who operate it will bring Air Force a step closer to becoming a fully networked fifth-generation force and further exploit the joint combat multiplier effects on exercises and operations.”
In a company statement, then L3 Technologies chairman, CEO and president Christopher Kubasik said, “Our mission solution and electronic warfare capabilities are highly sought after by our allies. As business jets are increasingly utilised for EW purposes, we have invested in miniaturising our capabilities to deliver new resources for our customers. Australia is a very important market for L3, and we look forward to a long and productive partnership with the RAAF and the local supplier base in support of the Peregrine program.”
In the same statement, L3 ISR Systems business segment president Jeff Miller added, “This capability will greatly strengthen the RAAF’s goal to becoming a fully networked fifth-generation force and considerably enhance their global effect on peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. It will serve as a critical link between air, land and sea assets to provide airborne electronic warfare support to Commonwealth and allied warfighters in complex operating environments.”
The Gulfstream G550 is the extended range and roomier follow-on from the GV and G450 long-range large cabin business jets which preceded it.
Originally dubbed the GV-SP, the G550 was first certified by the FAA in August 2003, and was replaced in business jet production in 2019 by the G600 which features a larger cabin and more modern cockpit. In total – and somewhat appropriately – nearly 550 G550s have been manufactured.
This total includes about 10 C-37 military/VIP transports, and about 20 G550 special mission aircraft equipped with airborne early warning, command and control, high altitude research, and electronic warfare support systems. Because of its popularity, flexibility and proven capabilities, the G550 special mission catalogue remains available while there is still demand.
The G550 bizjet offers sparkling performance, and the various special mission versions have been developed to closely match it. Its two Rolls-Royce BR 710-C4-11 engines each produce 15,400lbf of thrust giving the 90,000lb aircraft a maximum speed of M.89 and a cruise altitude of about 50,000ft. Maximum range is quoted as 6,750nm (12,500km), equating to about 14 hours endurance at an economical cruise speed. The same engines or derivatives of them power the Boeing 717 airliner, Bombardier Global Express business jet, and the larger Gulfstream G650ER, and have been proposed to re-engine the B-52H.
Despite most of the MC-55A’s external ‘lumps and bumps’ and other apertures having already been integrated with various other special mission G550s built to date, the RAAF’s jets will have a unique combination of these. The most notable external features will be a forward fuselage underside ‘canoe’ fairing, an upper fuselage or dorsal SATCOM antenna fairing, a bulbous rear tail cone fairing which houses an integrated electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) turret, and an antenna fairing on the top of the vertical stabiliser.
What the MC-55A won’t feature is the large fuselage side ‘cheek’ fairings used by the conformal airborne early warning (CAEW) version of the G550 as operated by Italy, Singapore and Israel, and on the US Navy’s NC-37B range control aircraft.
For some special mission applications including that of the MC-55A, the G550’s two BR 710 engines are each fitted with a 240kW generator which runs off a shaft into the engine and is faired into the underside of the nacelle. These provide additional electrical and cooling power to the sensitive mission systems and sensor arrays.
Even in special mission form, the baseline G550’s performance is a key capability; its cruise and maximum speeds allows it to keep pace with fast jet strike and air combat packages. Its operating altitude gives its sensors a huge field of regard, while its unrefuelled endurance allows it to cover most of Western Pacific or Eastern Indian Oceans from Darwin with plenty of time on station. No G550s have been converted for air-to-air refuelling.
But while the G550 shines in performance compared to other commercial derivatives, it has a much smaller cabin than even the 737 which has spawned the E-7A Wedgetail and P-8A Poseidon. At 47.2m3, the G550’s cabin is almost one-quarter the size of the 184m3 cabin 737-700/BBJ upon which the E-7A Wedgetail is based, and smaller again than the 224m3 737-800 which forms the basis of the P-8A Poseidon.
While no interior configuration details of the MC-55A have been released, an IAI graphic shows Israeli CAEW G550s have six large screen forward and rear-facing mission consoles in three rows of two each with an aisle in between, and a small galley and lavatory module.
Big Safari sits under the 303rd Aeronautical Systems Wing (303 ASW) of the US Air Force Materiel Command, and has a long history of developing and supporting US and allied ISR capabilities.
Its mission statement reads, ‘The Big Safari acquisition and sustainment system employs the necessary flexibility to respond to high-priority, dynamic operational requirements for programs that involve a limited number of systems that require a rapid response to changes in the operational environment throughout the life of the system.
‘Big Safari focuses on acquiring, fielding, and sustaining key operational capabilities that otherwise would not be achievable or supportable in the required timeframe. Events and processes are tailored to meet the user’s operational and schedule needs.’
In a 2010 address to the Air Force Association, then Secretary of the Air Force Michael B Donley said, “Big Safari has long been an alternative acquisition source for certain high priority, rapid-reaction, urgent Combatant Commander needs…unmatched culture of responsiveness…which continues to evolve and adapt in our current operational environment.”
Big Safari isn’t subject to much of the same public scrutiny of its contracting and acquisition activities as other US DoD organisations. But much of this scrutiny undoubtedly takes place behind closed doors, as much of its activity is conducted under the US DoD’s huge covert ‘black’ budget which, at an estimated US$50bn (A$73bn) a year, is almost double that of Australia’s entire annual defence budget.
Despite its low profile, Big Safari has the capabilities to manage projects end-to-end, including contracting, financial management, program management, engineering, test and evaluation, operations, maintenance, and sustainment. It is believed to manage more than 40 separate programs for multiple customers. As such, it enjoys a degree of flexibility and agility that other programs can only dream about.
“The US Air Force and Big Safari are great to work with,” the RAAF’s Director of ISREW, GPCAPT Jason Lind told ADBR. “This acquisition is an FMS project, and Big Safari is a very sophisticated engineering organisation.”
Some of its better-known programs include the RC-135 series of aircraft systems, including the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, RC-135S Cobra Ball, and WC-135W Constant Phoenix systems. Although all based on the same 1950s-vintage C-135 airframe and, being externally visually similar, these distinctive systems have been continuously upgraded and enhanced by L3, and are key US national strategic ISR assets.
Other programs that Big Safari has been involved in include the L3 MC-12W Liberty ISR system based on the King Air 350/350ER airframe, the early rapid development program to weaponise the GA-ASI MQ-1A Predator with Hellfire AGMs following the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare derivative of the Hercules, and the current BAE Systems EC-37B Compass Call II ‘Cross Deck Initiative’ program which is also to be based on the G550.
Big Safari has also been involved with the acquisition and systems integration of the USAF’s fleet of light commercial-derivative aircraft which provide discreet transport and ISR support to special forces command operations. These include Dornier 328-based C-146 Wolfhound and its Do328Jet or ‘DoJet’ development, the Pilatus PC12-based U-28A, the PZL M-28, and various other types such as CASA/Airbus C-295s, Bombardier Dash-8s, and King Airs/C-12s.
Older programs include the development of the Ryan BQM-34 Firefly and AQM-34 Lightning Bug surveillance and ELINT drones in the 1960s, and the management of the resurrection of three SR-71A Blackbirds for the USAF from 1994 before that program was permanently shut down in 1999.
The organisation is also rumoured to have played a role in the effort to rapidly integrate the battlefield airborne communications node (BACN) payload onto two mothballed NASA WB-57F Canberras for a rapid deployment to Kandahar in 2011 prior to BACN entering service on its intended E-11 (Global Express) and EQ-4 Global Hawk platforms.
Big Safari is also reportedly closely aligned with the secretive Sierra Nevada Corporation on the development of ISR platforms and systems used in counter-insurgency and anti-drug operations in Central and South America, and facilitated the development of the armed and armoured AT-802U Archangel version of the rugged Air Tractor agricultural aircraft.
Most relevant to the MC-55A is the L3 RC-135V/W Rivet Joint system operated by the USAF, and by the Royal Air Force as the Airseeker. Rivet Joint is a highly-capable electronic intelligence (ELINT) system capable of recording and classifying emissions from multiple communications, radar, and other systems across a broad spectrum, and many of the systems developed for that program by L3 and other contractors including BAE Systems will likely be leveraged for the Peregrine.
Details of the MC-55’s mission or capabilities understandably remain closely-held, but the ELINT/ISREW mission is not a new one for the RAAF.
It was well known within the wider Australian defence community that the RAAF had operated two AP-3C Orions and at least one C-130H Hercules in an ISREW role for nearly two decades under the three-phased Project Peacemate.
But apart from a few spurious Parliamentary Hansard references from the early 2000s, there is little on the record about the existence of these aircraft let alone their capabilities. Interestingly, it was only after the last of the ‘regular’ maritime patrol AP-3Cs were retired in late 2018 did your writer notice what is likely the first public ADF acknowledgement of the existence of the “AP-3C (Electronic Warfare)” platforms when, in February 2019, one of the aircraft deployed to Exercise Red Flag 19-1 at Nellis AFB in Nevada.
The two AP-3C (EW) airframes were modified in the US, based on requirements captured from lessons learned after several years of operating in the Middle East area of operations.
Despite the removal of all external serial numbers from the Orion fleet during the Sentinel upgrade, the AP-3C EW airframes were externally distinguishable by their lack of sonar buoy tubes on the underside of the rear fuselage. And much like the RAF’s Nimrod R.1 and the US Navy’s EP-3E Aries ELINT derivatives, they were effectively permanently consigned to their new EW role in place of their more traditional anti-submarine and maritime patrol missions.
The AP-3C EWs have received continual technological refreshes, keeping them at the leading edge of passive ISREW capabilities, and making them key electronic and visual ISR assets for the ADF and coalition forces.
The RAAF is keen to point out that, while the timing of the introduction of the MC-55A will coincide with the planned withdrawal of the two AP-3C EWs, the Peregrine is not a replacement for the AP-3C (EW) Orions. “This is a new capability, not an evolution,” GPCAPT Lind told us. “This will be airborne ISR done in a different way.”
Industry experts equate the AP-3C EW and the MC-55A’s capabilities to that of the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, albeit in a somewhat smaller package. This means that, like Rivet Joint, many of the key sensors on the aircraft will be likely provided by L3Harris and/or BAE Systems, giving the aircraft the capability to monitor, record and classify a wide portion of the microwave and radio wave end of the electromagnetic spectrum, from mobile phone and Wi-Fi networks, to large integrated air defence systems.
The co-location of the MC-55A with the P-8A, MQ-4C Triton, and the growing ADF ‘ISR Hub’ which comprises the tri-service Joint Electronic Warfare Operational Support Unit (JEWOSU), elements of the F-35-focused Australia-Canada-UK Reprogramming Lab (ACURL), and the DGS-AUS (Distributed Ground Station), is no coincidence.
The Project AIR 3503 DGS-AUS is a new intelligence unit responsible for the analysis of data collected from the various RAAF ISR platforms, and has access to other national intelligence resources and assets. It is capable of rapidly fusing data and information to provide senior military and political decision-makers with enhanced situational awareness.
The JEWOSU and ACURL are responsible for providing electronic warfare support by building and testing mission data files (MDF) for the RAAF’s combat and ISR platforms and systems, and many of these MDFs include threat libraries which will likely be built with the assistance of the MC-55A’s sensor suite as well as that of the Triton’s Multi-INT system from 2023. Other assets expected to contribute data to the ADF’s threat library include the EA-18G Growler and the F-35A, as well as the highly-capable passive ESM systems onboard the E-7A Wedgetail and the P-8A.
With all these high-end capabilities coming online in the next five years, the amount of data coming in to the ISR hub will increase exponentially. Therefore, the ability to manage the efficient tasking, collection, processing, exploitation, and dissemination (TCPED) of the data will be key. And while manpower will be important, so too will the integration of an appropriate level of artificial intelligence (AI) into the system.
“We will leverage off dataflows, and we will have a lot more people on the ground than in the aircraft,” said GPCAPT Lind. “We will need to be more flexible about where we get our data, and there will need to be a degree of fusion in the way it is presented.
“It’s not about the platforms, it’s about all the capabilities working together to achieve a joint force goal,” GPCAPT Lind added. “A lot of effort is being put into this, and the CJC (Chief of Joint Capabilities) is really taking the lead. Senior leadership has a growing idea of what is required to effectively operate these 5th gen systems, and it will be up to us to educate the decision-makers so the appropriate workforces and systems are established.”
But the manpower issue may not necessarily mean more people are required, but rather new skillsets. “We won’t necessarily need new people, but we’ll be changing the shape of many of those we already have,” GPCAPT Lind said. “Our people won’t just be in uniform. We will have industry, the APS (Australian Public Service), and allies as well.
“We will obviously need more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) people,” he added. “And a key consideration from an ethics viewpoint is the need to maintain a balance between the utilisation of AI and keeping humans in the loop.”
Because of the developmental nature of the Peregrine project, L3Harris will conduct a complete flight test campaign and certification program of the MC-55A configuration in conjunction with Big Safari and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). As with all aircraft operated by the ADF, the Chief of Air Force will be the ultimate the ultimate airworthiness authority for the aircraft and its systems.
No decision has yet been taken as to what squadron will operate the Peregrine. But with the RAAF taking a larger enterprise-level approach to ISREW, the small fleet will be combined with the Triton, MQ-9B/Reaper, E-7A, and the P-8A under the Surveillance and Response Group umbrella.
The four aircraft are scheduled to be delivered to Australia at the rate of roughly one per year until late 2025. A sustainment model is currently being worked on, but it is likely Industry will be required to become a platform steward for the airframe and many of its systems. Due to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) considerations, some of the more advanced sensors may need to be returned to the US for maintenance and repairs, but this is something the ADF and Industry is becoming more familiar with as new generation capabilities are introduced.
Training on the MC-55A and its systems will initially be conducted by L3Harris and the USAF at Greenville as part of the initial acquisition package. GPCAPT Lind wouldn’t be drawn on whether this had already commenced, but did offer that the RAAF was looking to streamline the training on and conversion to the aircraft.
“Training is always a challenge,” he said. “We want to be able to do it more rapidly, but we want to do it safely and efficiently. Regardless of the model we implement, training will always remain a FIC (fundamental input to capability).
“It’s an exciting capability,” he added in closing. “I’m confident that, after we get it into the hands of motivated operators, this capability will be doing things in 10 years that we haven’t even envisaged yet.”