Focus on the need for a regional ISR network
By Dougal Robertson
The NATO alliance marked a quiet milestone in March with the transfer of a mobile general ground station (MGGS) to the Alliance Ground Station (AGS) Force in Sigonella, Italy.
The MGGS is the exploitation segment of the AGS Program, a 15-nation intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) system to exploit and disseminate intelligence from five RQ-4B Global Hawk ‘Phoenix’ remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) and associated ground stations.
The RQ-4Bs are NATO-owned and operated, in much the same way as the 14 upgraded E-3A Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft of the NATO E-3A Component. With a resurgent Russia, the E-3A Component is a pillar of the NATO Assurance Measures missions supporting smaller alliance members against Russian intimidation.
The AGS and E-3A Components provide intelligence for the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System (NATINAMDS), the element of the NATO joint air power strategy that both supports air policing in peacetime and is postured for intelligence and targeting support during operations.
NATO has more than 70 years’ experience working through complex multinational integration problems. In Australia there is no joint concept linking the military services’ capabilities into a cohesive whole, and there’s even less of a framework for regional collective security.
Recently, academic and defence media commentators have focused on an independent Australian ‘strike’ capability – with differing opinions on potential requirements for range and lethality. The 2016 Australian Defence White Paper (DWP) is vague on specifics, noting only that strike capabilities will “provide flexibility for the ADF” to respond to threats and participate in regional and global coalitions.
Before the ADF can conduct strike missions, it must know what targets exist and where they are located. To do this, the ADF has to ‘sense’ and understand the battlespace. To this end, the Government’s Defence Integrated Investment Program (IIP) plans to spend close to 10 per cent of the allocated A$195 billion over the next decade on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), electronic warfare (EW), space and cyber.
AN ASSERTIVE AND EXPANSIVE PLA
Heritage Foundation policy analyst Frederico Bartels recently concluded that, properly measured, China’s defence budget at US$467.4bn is 87 per cent the size of the US ($US534.5bn).
A huge sum has been spent in the South China Sea where the PLA has militarised coral islands and reefs inside China’s claimed ‘nine-dash line’. With the completion of island outposts in the Spratly Islands at Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs, regional governments have accused the PLA, Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia of harassing Vietnamese, Malaysian, Philippine and Thai shipping and commercial activity. The ‘People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia’ (PAFMM) is probably used by the PLA to provide a level of unofficial or deniable aggression against other claimant states.
The physical Spratly outposts also provide the PLA with a permanent intelligence collection capability. The collection apparatus probably feeds information to senior PLA decision-makers in Beijing and the Southern Theatre Command in Guangzhou, and almost certainly provides situational understanding of the environment to enable the targeting of PLA offensive weapon systems.
The PLA has built a system to sense and understand the battlespace so it can position PLA, Coast Guard and PAFMM vessels and units where they can have the most influence.
The Economist noted that Xi Jinping “has done more in the last three years to reform the PLA than any leader since Deng Xiaoping”. Part of that reform restructured the PLA to fight “local wars under high-technology conditions” where the intensity and conclusion of conflict is controlled. The concept of war control avoids escalation and seeks to shape the international environment in China’s favour.
NATO faces a similar problem with Russian aggression in Europe. Russia seeks to avoid direct confrontation with NATO, and instead the recent targets of Russian military activity have been the Ukraine and Georgia – neither of which are NATO members. The NATO E-3A Component and the nascent NATO AGS is designed to monitor and understand the battlespace to place Russian activity out in the open, and to reassure Poland and the Baltic States.
REGIONAL INFORMATION SHARING
The question is whether a cooperative security approach such as NATINAMDS could be applied to maritime South-East Asia and the South Pacific. One answer may be to build the foundation of a regional maritime information sharing network based on the RAAF E-7A Wedgetail, like the NATO E-3A Component.
The RAAF E-7A is the most technologically advanced airborne command, control and battle management (C2BM) platform in operational service. Its networked capabilities allow the E-7A to share information from other aircraft such as the P-8A Poseidon and F-35 to build a complex surveillance picture.
Boeing claims the E-7A Multirole Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) L-band radar can track airborne targets out to 350nm in look-up mode and surface targets at 150nm, while the MESA also has a passive electronic intelligence (ELINT) collection capability. The information and data fusion capabilities inherent in the E-7A make it central to situational understanding in any operating environment. The E-7A also has the capability to control and receive sensor data from unmanned aircraft – a concept Boeing demonstrated in 2009 using three of the company’s ScanEagle UAVs.
The E-7A is also operated by South Korea and Turkey and, as reported in ADBR in March 2019, the UK has ordered five E-7As based on the same 737-700IGW airframe as the RAAF aircraft.
While NATO must maintain awareness of a complex ground environment, the ADF has to build understanding of a complex maritime environment. That relies on persistence of sensors and constant presence. Even with the expected boost in spending from the IIP, Australia does not have the size and resources to maintain a constant watch on PLA maritime activity.
The US conducts freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the Spratly Islands but does not maintain an ongoing presence. Using a highly networked aircraft such as the E-7A in cooperation with multiple P-8As, MQ-4C Tritons, and F-35As could allow the ADF to combine an effective ‘sensing layer’ with a robust ‘decision layer’ to inform government and senior defence leaders.
The regional security framework in South-East Asia means it is unrealistic to expect the sharing of information that could be used for targeting or operations. But a capability that offers understanding and awareness of malign activity – particularly by sharing information from key regional militaries and fusing this information in a collaborative hub – might be a small step in the right direction.
The ADF already conducts maritime surveillance patrols in the North Indian Ocean and South China Sea as part of Operation Gateway, and there are several security arrangements in place that could facilitate a regional surveillance hub.
The existing Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) are a cooperative mechanism for the militaries of Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia and the UK to train together. The RNZAF will take delivery of its first of four P-8As in 2022 while, in January, the US State Department approved Singapore’s request for 12 F-35Bs to replace some of the RSAF’s 60 F-16C/D fighters. As the UK re-thinks its global position post-Brexit, a closer engagement with the FPDA is possible.
Australia, Japan and the US also signed a trilateral information-sharing arrangement (TISA) in 2016. The US Department of Defense says the TISA expedites information sharing “to enable higher capability defence exercises and operations among the three nations”. In the Jan-Feb 2020 edition of ADBR, Peter Hunter noted that Australia and Japan already have similar platforms and equipment and shared interests in achieving interoperability and integration.
It took an aggressive, expansionist Russia to revitalise a NATO joint ISR system based on historical cooperation using a single aircraft type, and Australia and the region face similar disruptive behaviour and intimidation from the PLA. Cooperation through military technology and information-sharing may be the first step towards a more cohesive regional security response. And that engine of collaboration could be the E-7A.
Dougal Robertson is an Executive Analyst at Felix Defence.