The Royal Air Force has a new intelligence aircraft, the Sentinel R1 that’s part of the ASTOR radar ground surveillance system.
The radar’s resolution is officially put at under 1 meter, but aerospace specialists say it is at least on a par with the U-2’s acuity of well under 1 ft. – probably a few inches.
The aircraft is small, fast, and can do some things better than the U.S. E-8 Joint Stars. It’s going to Afghanistan soon, and the U.S. wants a piece of the action.
Asked if the technology on Astor could track a walking man on a cloudy day, the head of the U.S. National Geo-spatial Intelligence Agency, Vice Adm. Robert Murrett, paused, expressed familiarity with the Astor program, and then said, “Yes. As time goes on an increasing share of our collection capability will be less conventional. It will be less electro-optical, black and white, non-time-sensitive imagery. A much larger part of our mission set [as intelligence analysts] will be an array of five or six phenomenologies that can do many things like penetrate clouds [and underground]. In five or ten years we will be able to take advantage of all of those capabilities from a wide variety of platforms that gives us, along with our allies, a competitive edge.
“Radar imagery is becoming more precise all the time,” Murrett says. “I think I can say the difference between what can be seen with radar imagery and the electro-optical imagery has narrowed by advances in technology. Radar data has advantages for analyses that you can’t get elsewhere.” Future exploitation of the radar image will involve hyperspectral slicing of the radar return to identify targets and light or laser radar imaging to define the shape, location and altitude of a target, he says.
“We have a broad set of international relationships that have to do with the exchange of data,” says Murrett. “It’s typically handled in bi-lateral intelligence channels. The important point is that we are actively engaged with all the services making sure we can get the data we need from our foreign counterparts. The ways that we can torture pixels are truly remarkable. We take advantage of cutting edge technology every single day no matter where it is.”
From the Sentinels operational altitude, the radar’s range will be about 180-200 naut. mi. More importantly for the small 3-man mission crew, the system offers automated in-air retasking, motion analysis tools, correlation of radar and terrain data, fusion of intelligence from multiple sources, a wide range of intelligence exploitation tools and both broad- and narrow-band communications links. The ground segment ensures the aircraft is maneuvered into the right position to deliver the data needed by ground commanders.
The Royal Air Force’s continuing research includes networking Astor’s radar products with the intelligence from the Nimrod R1, the RAF’s renowned signals and communications intelligence aircraft, and a range of new unmanned aircraft built for both reconnaissance and strike which include Predator, Reaper and Watchkeeper. It also will involve solving the knotty, long-term issue of sharing bandwidth with allies.
“GMTI will be an important mission set for our partners and us,” says Murrett during a Washington interview. “We need the overarching [networking and realtime exchange of intelligence] and we’re as close to the UK as anyone.”
Murrett also hinted at future capabilities and phenomenologies such as “gravitometrics” in which minor changes in gravity help locate underground facilities or tunnels where weapons are stored or command facilities operate. Such data, coupled with change detection data from radar surveillance such as earth and rock spoil can help identify targets and the weapons needed to attack them. Other high value add-on capabilities include hyperspectral imagery – which uses hundreds of spectrum slices to identify the chemical composition of objects (down to paint and camouflage types) and light radar which can produce high fidelity images of small objects like tanks or missiles and their precise location and elevation, he says.
“It’s all about networking,” says a Royal Air Force official with responsibility for management requirements within the Astor integrated product team.
With reporting by Amy Butler.
Photo: HIGH-G Technologies