RAF Typhoon Eurofighter at the US Exercise Red Flag 2014.
Man and machine prepare for combat. An RAF Typhoon Eurofighter at the US Exercise Red Flag 2014.

Can reprogrammable electronic warfare systems provide protection for tactical aircraft in a dynamic and changing threat environment?

Leonardo believe in rapidly reprogrammable electronic warfare (EW) systems. Not only do they protect the aircraft, they will also provide the pilot with much better situational awareness, allowing him to know what threats are out there, to understand their behaviour, to evade them, and ideally to prevent or manage any engagement.

Modern tactical aircraft have to operate in a complex, contested threat environment whose lethality is growing exponentially, with the emergence of a plethora of high-end, long- and medium-range multi-spectral threats, including Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems like the SA-21 ‘Growler’ (S-400 Triumf), SA-22 ‘Greyhound’ (Pantsir-S1), and SA-25 (9K333 Verba). These threat systems are software re-programmable and are being updated more and more regularly. They are also frequently networked, allowing them to share a lot more intelligence of the air situation.

S-400 Triumf (SA-21 Growler) medium- and long-range surface-to-air missile systems
Russian army parades the S-400 Triumf (SA-21 Growler) medium- and long-range surface-to-air missile systems during a Victory Day parade at Red Square, Moscow.

Stealth Technology

One solution to the problem of combat aircraft survivability is to use Low Observable (Stealth) technology to escape or delay detection. But although such fifth generation aircraft are very hard to detect using current radars, these aircraft are not invisible, and are becoming progressively easier to detect as counter stealth technologies are being rapidly developed and deployed. Mark Hewer, Leonardo’s vice president for the Integrated Mission Solutions Business, points out that: “You cannot easily modify a stealth platform to counter new high-end threats, because you can’t redesign the skin of your aircraft, or its internal structure, or its configuration. You have got what you have got.”

This means that when new radars are introduced that erode the low observability of fifth generation fighters, there will be little that can be done to counter that, or to restore the combat advantage enjoyed by these aircraft. By contrast, EW systems are able to evolve to take account of this dynamic threat, in a way that stealth aircraft cannot. They can be upgraded and updated, incorporating new hardware and software.

The Typhoon’s EW system

Leonardo’s Praetorian Defensive Aids Sub-System
Leonardo’s Praetorian Defensive Aids Sub-System (DASS) currently installed on the Eurofighter Typhoon.
1. Laser warners
2. Flare launchers (IR decoys)
3. Chaff dispensers
4. Missile warners
5. Wingtip pods for ESCM
6. Towed decoy

Hewer believes that such agile evolving EW systems, typified by Leonardo’s open/reprogrammable electronic warfare (EW) suite for the Typhoon, represent what he calls ‘digital stealth’, conferring a high degree of survivability.

Though Hewer talked to Armada about the Typhoon EW system, he was quick to point out that the basic concept – of using a rapid mission data reprogramming cycle to maximise the effectiveness of EW against a rapidly evolving and proliferating threat – is applicable across platforms and indeed domains.

The Typhoon’s EW capabilities are provided by Leonardo’s Praetorian Defensive Aids Sub-System (DASS). This incorporates an onboard ECM jamming system using the aircraft’s wingtip pods as well as an RF Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS), laser and radar warning systems and a flare and countermeasures dispensing system. The system also incorporates an off-board ECM system, using a Towed Radar Decoy, and the new BriteCloud system.

The Typhoon’s EW system is undergoing a continuous evolution, with regular upgrades to the hardware and a spiral software development process, while having Open/Reprogrammable Mission Data makes the integration of new EW system elements easier and more effective, allowing Typhoon to better exploit the capabilities offered by BriteCloud, for example.

BriteCloud

Britecloud is a small, self-contained, highly programmable Digital RF Memory (DRFM) active decoy that was first integrated on the Tornado in March 2018. Typhoon testing began in April 2019, and by the end of May 33 BriteCloud rounds had been dispensed by No.41 (Reserve) Squadron Typhoons. The MoD’s own ‘Desider’ magazine has stated that initial operational capability on Typhoon will be declared in late 2019, following the conclusion of testing on the Typhoon. Programme insiders consider this to be a realistic goal because much of the work has already been done on Tornado.

Britecloud functionality will be enhanced with the integration of a new Saab Smart Dispenser System on the Typhoon. This will allow Britecloud rounds to be reprogrammed on the wing to take account of new threat intelligence, and will allow complex and co-ordinated patterns of expendables to be dispensed.

The Saab Smart Dispenser System (SDS) is of modular design, with magazines for different expendable types installed in one of four different positions in the launcher, giving a large range of potential combinations of expendable type and release location within the launcher. The launcher will accommodate an increased number of flares and decoy expendables, giving enhanced persistence, and will also provide improved firing angles. Testing work, including both ground trials and flight trials will take place towards the end of 2020, with safe separation/functional flight trials following by the end of 2021.

BriteCloud represents a world-leading expendable active decoy capability that will give Typhoon a discriminatory capability that is not available on any other platform and will add to the portfolio of options that the Typhoon pilot will have to counter the very highest end threats. “There’s nothing like it on the market today,” Hewer explained.

BriteCloud 55 Expendable Active Decoy (EAD)
The UK Ministry of Defence has contracted Leonardo to provide its BriteCloud 55 Expendable Active Decoy (EAD) for trials with the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoon fleet.

Mission data

But more important than the performance of the individual hardware elements within Typhoon’s DASS is their ability to be reprogrammed using open/reprogrammable mission data. Mission data is used to interpret the information that the sensors receive, and drives the behaviour of the EW system. ‘Good’ Mission Data is what makes an EW system effective, since only by understanding and predicting a threat system’s behaviours and vulnerabilities can that threat be defeated or evaded. Mission data is far more important than the angular accuracy of a radar warning receiver, or the radiated power of a particular jammer, though parameters like these are obviously relatively easy to quantify and are perhaps easier for a lay observer to understand.

Sources close to the Eurofighter export campaign in Switzerland blamed a poor, generic, and out-of-date Mission Data load for the aircraft’s relatively poor showing in the first Swiss evaluation. A senior Typhoon test pilot once admitted that the EW capabilities of a Typhoon ‘off the production line’ with a basic ‘factory’ mission data load, were unimpressive, but that with the latest RAF Mission Data (for example) the aircraft’s EW and radar capabilities were world-beating.

“What is really important for the high-end customer buying Typhoon is that their EW system is highly programmable,” Hewer said. “There’s no point in directing your ECM if it is going to be ineffective against that threat because you’re not exploiting its vulnerabilities.”

Reprogrammable mission data allows the right threat intelligence (including threat vulnerabilities) to be loaded into the system and Leonardo believes that this represents a major competitive advantage for the company.

Air forces are increasingly seeing the need to be able to generate the most up-to-date mission data set in order to ensure relevance to the environment and to guarantee mission success. This makes the rapidity and agility of the mission data upgrade cycle of paramount importance.

On Exercise Red Flag, and during some operational deployments, RAF Typhoons have sometimes loaded new Mission Data sets between individual waves or ‘vuls’ in order to exploit new intelligence.

RAF at Exercise Red Flag 2016
On Exercise Red Flag, and during some operational deployments, RAF Typhoons have loaded new Mission Data sets between individual waves to exploit new intelligence.

This kind of agility isn’t possible for lower priority export customer of some US fighters, who won’t have access to the source codes necessary for reprogramming an EW system, and who may not have their own national EW database. Such air forces will have to rely on a relatively slow and infrequent Mission Data reprogramming cycle.

“There’s no point having a cycle that can take a year – such as sending data back to, say, the US and then turning it into a mission data set which by that time could be way out of date,” Hewer observed.

Mission Data is key, and most customers want to be able to generate their own autonomous and sovereign data, and not to simply have to rely on what they may be given by their platform provider.

Hewer compared the approaches to mission data taken on the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35. “Because of the relationship that Leonardo has with the UK Joint EWOS centre, and because Leonardo has provided training to the F-35 reprogrammers, I do have some insight into that programme and what I can say is that Typhoon is many more years more mature in its operational use of programming for EW,” he said.

US Mission Data Capabilities

The US has tried to provide its ‘first tier’ F-35 customers with a sovereign Mission Data capability, but there is still a very heavy reliance on the US for F-35 Mission Support Capabilities. The ACURL (Australian/Canadian/ UK Reprogramming Laboratory) is not really agile, and is permanently based at Eglin AFB in the USA, which mitigates against rapid and frequent Mission Data reprogramming.

By contrast, the UK has the tools, knowledge and infrastructure necessary for re-programming the Typhoon EW system in the Mission Support Centre at RAF Coningsby, and also in the Joint EWOS Centre at RAF Waddington, which Hewer singled out as being: “an absolute world leading example of a Centre of excellence in creating Mission Data.”

Leonardo is aiming to offer its customers a similar, sustainable tailored sovereign mission support capability, either via a paid-for service, which they can dictate the outputs of, or via a tailored solution designed in concert with the company.

Mission Data Generation toolset

To provide customers with this kind of sovereign capability, Leonardo offers very comprehensive EW support and Mission Support training programmes (including classroom-based to software and indeed hands-on, hardware-in-the-loop training), and has a suite of deployable software tools including a Mission Data Generation toolset and threat vulnerability analysis tools, as well as modelling and simulation products that allow a customer to develop countermeasures, and then to verify and trial them.

These analysis tools allow an operator to evaluate what has been seen by the EW system, whether it was what had been expected, how the system has performed and whether the Mission Data needs to be evolved. This allows the establishment of a continuously agile EW life cycle.

EW database

Leonardo can also help customers to set up a national EW database (or an aircraft/system specific database) that can capture all of the intelligence on particular threats – their characteristics, performance, capabilities, vulnerabilities, and countermeasures.

“All of that has to be housed and we can design relevant infrastructure which has the right networks, rigs and people,” Hewer says.

Leonardo and the Eurofighter partners have enabled Saudi Arabia to establish its own very comprehensive sovereign Mission Data capability, and similar offerings formed a major part of the Kuwaiti and Qatari Typhoon bids.

Leonardo is keen to emphasise its links to the UK armed forces, and stresses the way in which they (and the armed forces and air forces of the other Eurofighter partner nations) have provided forward leaning support to export customers.

“We have the benefit of a very proactive supporter in the form of UK MoD and RAF, to help complement our knowledge as industry with real operational experience and best practise,” Hewer averred. I think that’s a unique value proposition – combining the strengths of industry and all the knowledge that we have and the experience of our military forces.”

Future

For the future Leonardo is looking at increased automation and machine learning in the production of mission data, in order to achieve a step change in data management and analytics. This promises to reduce the burden on people, in an increasingly complex threat environment, which is producing ever greater amounts of mission data. The company is also looking to share mission data across platforms.

“Multi-platform mission data allows you to gain greater accuracy at even greater distance,” Hewer said. “While single platform situational awareness is very good, there are always advantages to be had by sharing a complex battlespace picture, sharing intelligence on identifying threats, and locations.”

The company is also looking at inflight reprogramming of EW systems. This would allow an EW system to update itself as a result of behaviour that it is sensing and seeing. It is also working on advanced AESA radars, which offer considerable potential for EW.

by Jon Lake