ACS Failure Fallout: Boeing to Offer SIGINT 737
DID has covered the Aerial Common Sensor spy-plane program to replace the USAF’s RC-12 Guardrails and RC-7 Crazy Hawks, and the Navy’s EP-3 Aries II. From explaining the program and its forced change of aircraft, to the selection of Britain’s ASTOR Sentinel R1 as a template, to the contract’s cancellation and the program’s possible shutdown. DID’s original article even noted the Boeing 737 as a potential high-end option in this space that could stress commonality with the USA’s C-40 Clipper transports and T-43 navigation trainers, and the US Navy’s future P-8A Maritime Multi-mission Aircraft.
It appears that Boeing has come to similar conclusions. They’ve just announced plans for a new 737 signals intelligence (SIGINT) aircraft that can be used for airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and also advanced net-centric communications.
The aircraft would be a variant of its 737-based P-8A Multi-mission Maritime Aircraft under development for the U.S. Navy. The firm also touts the plane’s “built-in growth capacity” – which was, of course, the fatal problem with Lockheed and Northrop-Grumman’s platform choices. Indeed, Boeing has said they can increase the mission crew capacity and associated equipment to 24-25 positions without crowding or overloading.
Structural strengthening was already done when the P-8A MMA was designed, in order to give that aircraft its 12,000 pound ordnance payload. Designers would take out the MMA’s sonobuoy system and anti-submarine warfare rotary launchers. The aft weapons bay would be sealed, and a small “canoe” bulge would be added underneath to house a series of rotating SIGINT/ELINT antennas.
The 737 SIGINT aircraft would also add an array of additional data links, embedded antennae, and electronics, plus network-centric collaborative targeting (NCCT) capabilities to locate and identify signals emitters and electronic attack packages to attack enemy devices and networks. There is even talk of using AESA radars for their jamming, surveillance, and potential net-centric communications value.
Meanwhile, this P-8 variant’s wing pylons would be able to carry various weapon payloads, including decoy missiles with standoff jamming devices or straight decoys/provocateurs like the ADM-141C ITALD, the Chukar, and/or the ADM-160 MALD. Aviaton Week also notes that a disposable air-launched UAV is also in the works in order to quietly get very close to foes, especially the low-power, wireless communications networks favored by terrorists for both command and control and triggering explosives.
The whole package would be backed up by internal electronics, computing, and networking equipment, running the aircraft’s mission software on top of the P-8 MMA’s architecture. Tim Norgart, in Aviation Week:
“We would use the 1.9 million lines of code and the basic open architecture of MMA and then bring in the sigint packages on top of that,” Norgart says. “Each sensor package has software code associated with it that runs [on the basic architecture] like an application. We have demonstrated that capability–to roll on a different radar and an additional sensor without writing any more lines of code and without even shutting the system down.” Any operator can sit down at any workstation and “tell the system what data you want to see and everything works through the core architecture.”
Ultimately, Boeing believes that the aircraft’s capabilities could be expanded and upgraded to rival those of the US Air Force’s 707-based RC-135 Rivet Joint.
If the $7-8 billion ACS program returns, expect Boeing to be a competitor. Boeing may also be counting on the possibility that the US Navy, which has expressed reservations about the joint ACS program, will end up splitting off its own effort to replace the EP-3 Aries II. The Aries IIs will reportedly reach the end of its service life rope around 2017, and using the same platform that will replace the Navy’s P-3 Orions may be an attractive proposition.
Boeing also sees other trends driving demand. From Aviation Week:
“You put together a common architecture, communications suite and sensor packages and you’re going to drive yourself toward a common air vehicle, otherwise you’re going to pay developmental costs three times and add three types… to the inventory,” says Tim Norgart, director of Boeing’s P-8A business development. [In reality] we’re seeing a neck-down of types. Today’s budgets are going to drive [the Pentagon] back to joint solutions.”
Foreign customers like Australia and Turkey who use the E-737 “Wedgetail” AWACS aircraft may also find a 737-derived SIGINT aircraft appealing, and the platform does offer improved performance. The larger size of a SIGINT 737 vs. smaller competitors gives it better “antenna separation” and “electronic baselines.” These traits makes location and ranging more accurate when electronic emitters are detected, and allows the aircraft to gather much lower-frequency signals.
The big question is: how many nations really have a need for this level of performance, and are not based in markets that are either too geopolitically (i.e. Russia, China) or commercially (i.e. Europe) hostile for a 737 SIGINT offering to work. Given the global trend toward business jets even for AWACS roles due to smaller security budgets and less demanding national requirements, it’s clear that Boeing’s offering is definitely lodged at the “high needs/ high budget” end of the market spectrum.
When selling internationally, therefore, Boeing will be competing internationally against a number of new lower-end offerings based on business jets and small route transports. The Gulfstream G550-based IAI Nachshon, Bombardier Global Express-based ASTOR Sentinel R1, and Embraer’s RJ-145 based EMB 145 RS/AGS will all offer capable lower-budget alternatives for those who need less range, fewer sensors, and/or less cost than a major US multi-service program. Even UAVs like the General Atomics MQ-9 Predator-B, the IAI Heron, and Northrop-Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk are likely to be competitors in this space.
Yet the most important change in this field may not lie in equipment choices. As an intelligence specialist quoted by Aviation Week points out:
“But [the core problem] is not about the technology… Where we need to see change is in the areas of roles and missions. National [intelligence] organizations need to embrace the services as partners rather than subordinates – or worse, unqualified rubes that only interfere with the national [agencies'] prowess. There also needs to be theater-level implementation of orchestrated instead of scheduled ISR coverage as well as training and documentation on how to employ these remarkable new tools.”
Boeing’s partners in the 737 SIGINT so far so far are:
- Smiths: flight deck systems.
- Northrop Grumman: electro-optical and infrared sensors, electronic surveillance measures, data links and self-protection system.
- Raytheon: mechanically scanned APS-137 multi-mode radar and some unspecified SIGINT systems.