Looking Further, Looking Wider

Fighters such as the F-16 and F-15 have been equipped with Collins DB-110 dual-band pod for many years.
Fighters such as the F-16 and F-15 have been equipped with Collins DB-110 dual-band pod for many years.

Improvements to reconnaissance pods for fighters and other aircraft are yielding yet more intelligence information that can be quickly analysed and acted upon.

Without the ability to conduct their own intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), nation states today run the risk of being tactically, if not strategically, exploited by others who are prepared to act aggressively and, increasingly, outside the rules based order. China’s illegal moves into the South China Sea, through its island building tactics, caught those who opposed it largely unaware and unprepared.

As the financial entry point for launching and operating satellites begins to come down, more states are going to have access to satellite ISR and imagery from space. For a fee they can even have a third party country supply them with some of the imagery they might need – although this is unlikely to include everything they require on a 24/7 basis.

The alternative is for states to own their own dedicated ISR capabilities that can be attached to military aircraft. However, the quality of the imagery produced, the range at which it can be acquired, the ability for that imagery to be transmitted back to a ground station and then analysed in a quick and effective manner are all considerations that must be made.

The range of these type of ISR pods includes Rafael’s RecceLite XR multi-spectral system, Thales Aeros (Airborne Recce Observation System) which is used on the Dassault Rafale, as well as the Talios which combines targeting with reconnaissance, and the new MS-110 from Collins, the successor to its popular DB-110.

In Asia-Pacific, the challenge when it comes to conducting reconnaissance and intelligence gathering is “the tyranny of distance”, said Dean Baxevanis, director, Business Development at Collins Aerospace. Baxevanis works with the International Airborne Programmes business, specifically explaining to potential customers the benefits of the next generation airborne reconnaissance system, the MS-110. This is a multispectral imaging pod that follows on from the company’s very successful DB-110, the dual-band pod. However, the quality of the imagery produced by the MS-110 is sharper and more detailed.

Whereas the Collins’ DB-110 dual-band airborne reconnaissance sensor provides a mix of black and white and electro-optical / infra-red (EO/IR) imaging for both day and night operations, the latest MS-110 is the next generation on delivering multispectral images. Collins defines this as “sensor data collected simultaneously from three or more spectral regions or bands. The same scene is imaged in all the spectral bands, with each spectral image assigned a display colour and overlaid to form a multi-spectral composite image.”

The new Collins MS-110 multi-spectral imaging pod.
The new Collins MS-110 multi-spectral imaging pod.

Baxevanis explains further: “Mutli-spectral imagery allows you to see contrasts between materials, such as through items that have been camouflaged. You can see colour contrast between target sets quickly, whereas with dual-band grey-scale it would take longer to identify and analyse.”

The data collected by the MS-110, like the DB-110, is transmitted to ground stations when the aircraft is in line-on-sight. If operating remotely, the imagery is stored on the aircraft using a high speed solid-state recorder. Transmission then begins once the aircraft re-enters line-of-sight. Permanent or temporary ground stations can be used if the intelligence gathered is required by forces operating on the ground. A naval vessel has not been used as the ground station to date, but it is possible.

Traditionally the DB-110 has been operated by fast jets such as the Boeing’s F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15 Eagle and the F-/A18 Hornet, as well as other platforms such as Saab’s Gripen. However it can also be mounted on transport and patrol aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin C-130 and other maritime patrol aircraft and certain classes of unmanned aerial vehicles such as the General Atomics MQ-9. “Maritime patrol aircraft offer a longer dwell time in the operational area of interest compared to a fast jet,” said Baxevanis. “Customers in the Asia-Pacific are very interested in the maritime mission set. We have long range reach so that in peacetime operations you can operate from international airspace but still collect intelligence from areas of interest beyond what shorter range systems can do. The range is further than 80 nautical miles but I cannot give a specific number beyond that,” he offered.

While there is an increase in data with more detail being produced, analysis can be significantly aided at the ground station using SCI-Toolkit (SCI stands for Simplifying Complex Information). As Braxevanis states: “You aren’t over loading the operator with more intelligence, but capturing it and presenting it in a way through advanced processing at the ground station that helps the operator and battle commanders make faster decisions and with higher integrity in real time.”

Another complimentary system being introduced by Collins is the TacSAR pod, which integrates the DB-110 with Leonardo’s Advanced Electronically Scanned Array (AESA). This combination provides a range of useful features including: high resolution SAR spot viewing as well as wide view mapping, as well as Ground Moving Target indicator. Said Baxevanis, “This AESA radar version of the pod allows another layer to the MS/DB-110 adding further nuances to the intelligence picture.”

Both the MS/DB-110s are end-to-end systems. They use power from the aircraft and can be integrated with other onboard systems such as SIGINT and ELINT, as well as synthetic aperture radar. “We not only sell the pod which contains the camera and the data link, but also the ground stations, mission planning equipment as well as maintenance and test equipment for the ground,” stated Baxevanis. “There are concepts for different levels of maintenance – we try to do as much in-country as possible and each country has its own operational concepts. Is it the first time they have flown reconnaissance pods or are they using them to replace something older which they already had. Each customer is difference.”

A Thales Defence Talios targeting reconnaissance pod under a Dassault Rafale.
A Thales Defence Talios targeting reconnaissance pod under a Dassault Rafale.

Keeping watch

The counter-insurgency wars that characterised most of the first two decades of the 21st Century and been replaced by the return of peer-to-peer strategic positioning. This is characterised by China and Russia looking to push out their respective boundaries (Taiwan, South and East China Seas and beyond for China; the Crimea and most recently the Ukraine in terms of Russia). The United States, NATO and their ‘allies and partners’ (now the phrase constantly used for countries supporting either or both entities), are looking to prevent aggressive actions being used to achieve this.

While individual nations may not have the defence budget, ISR is something that most nations can conduct with the assets at their disposal. “We are seeing a resurgence of reconnaissance pods worldwide,” commented Baxevanis. “The MS-110 been marketed for a couple of years now and the first direct commercial sale (DCS) customer is reaching the point of maturity for delivery now.”

Although the sale of the MS-110 is subject to International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) controls in the US, Collins works with the US government on a case-by-case basic, to allow either a DCS or Foreign Military Sale (FMS).

“We have a solution called indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract which sets pricing so that when a country asks for the product, the pricing has been previously set. It is a great mechanism for cutting the timeline on acquisition. We already have our first IDIQ award and second MS-110 customer currently underway. We can now see building demand,” confirmed Braxevanis.

by Andrew Drwiega