01 October 2018

UAV EO/IR Systems

Author: Dr. David L. Rockwell, Drawn From: Military Electronics Briefing

This month we focus on UAV EO/IR systems, as well as other airborne sensors, including manned U-2 systems.

Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) programs tend to be among the most classified programs in the U.S. and other militaries. While bits of information often become available – especially RFPs – comprehensive program information and funding tend to remain secret. It is certain that many small, probably inexpensive SIGINT sensors are currently flying aboard small UAVs, but comprehensive information is not available publicly.

On the other hand, by 2016 at least hints of programs had begun to fill out to all services and classes of small UAVs, from the Army/USMC RQ-7 Shadow and Navy MQ-8 Fire Scout at the larger tactical UAV scale, to hand-launched Army Puma mini-UAVS at the smaller end. In 2018, a raft of new sensors (not just SIGINT) for small UAVs of the U.S. Marine Corps were outlined in detail in the FY19 budget.

In February 2018, the U.S. Marine Corps FY19 procurement budget funded the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Payloads integration program (BLI 4787 Procurement Marine Corps), to alleviate Marine Corps Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability gaps caused by rapidly changing missions, threats, and technologies. It will provide responsive capability to integrate and support rapid fielding of ISR payloads for all UAS within the Marine Corps (primarily the RQ-21A Blackjack and other small tactical and mini-UAVs). Note that total USMC funding is low, but this program line provides something of a template for what the other services are doing (with considerably more funding) through classified or unpublished programs. We thus quote program plans in some detail below.

Note also that in FY19, this program is being consolidated into the Program of Record (POR) for the RQ-21A Blackjack – and at that point, we expect transparency to cloud over and many programs to disappear from the PoR record, as published details focus more on RQ-21A platform and overall program progress. Funding for BLI 4787 Procurement Marine Corps will transition to BLI 0444 Aircraft Procurement, Navy (APN) in FY19.

Sensor payloads will increase the effectiveness and versatility of the Marine Corps UAS currently planned to have Electro-Optic (EO)/Infrared (IR) collection, Communications Relay, and Automatic Identification capabilities. Upgrades include, but are not limited to, Signals Intelligence (SIGINT)/Electronic Warfare Support (ES), Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)/Moving Target Indi­cator (MTI), and Wide Area FOV and Hyperspectral Imagery collection – pretty much running the gamut of sensor types – and this is all for the quite small RQ-21A Blackjack and the even smaller hand-launched Raven/Puma.

In February 2018, the U.S. Marine Corps FY19 procurement budget for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) Payloads (BLI 4787 Procurement Marine Corps) provided $14.2 million procurement funding in FY18. The increase of $11.2 million from FY17 to FY18 provides newly developed payloads to address capability gaps caused by rapidly changing missions, threats, and technologies. Systems procured included:

  • Eight (8) Group III (RQ-21A Blackjack) Spectral Bat Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) payloads
  • Six (6) Group III UAS Synthetic Aperture Radar/Moving Target Indicator (SAR/MTI) payloads Fifty (50) Group I (Raven/Puma) UAS SIGINT payloads
  • (345) Group I UAS Mobile Ad-Hoc Network (MANET) payloads

In FY18, the UAS Payloads procurement line was expanded to include funding for Marine Corps Group I UAS system intelligence payloads. P-5 cost elements were broken out to reflect the payload procurement in support of Group III and Group I UAS. Group I and III SIGINT/ES payloads will fill current capability gaps for the Marine Corps ISR mission and is required as part of the Marine Corps mission to locate and target adversary Signals ofInterest (SOI).

Group I Mobile Ad-hoc Networks (MANET) provide the RQ-11 Raven and the RQ-20 Puma mini-UAVs extended communications and data relay, utilizing radios such as the AN/PRC-117G and the ANW2 waveform. MANET provides Marine Corps ground units an organic airborne communication relay which allows the transmission of mission critical intelligence.

Group III Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) with Moving Target Indicator (MTI) will be integrated for Marine Corps small tactical UAS. This capability fills current capability gaps for the ISR mission and will allow Marine Corps ISR assets to locate and track ground targets that cannot effectively be located or tracked with the current ground based sensor technology. The ability to locate and track moving ground targets from small tactical UAVs is an essential capability that facilitates the six functions of Marine Corps Aviation and the Marine Corps ISR Enterprise across the range of military operations.

Group III Wide Area Persistent Surveillance (WAS) provides the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) with organic airborne Wide Area Surveillance. The Wide Area Surveillance (WAS) payload collects and records Electro Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) images over a wide area in order to conduct persistent surveillance of large areas of interest, in near real time, while recording data to enable forensics. The WAS payload will provide the Marine Corps the ability to disseminate multiple high resolution sub-sampled imagery windows to multiple users.

Unfortunately – but as to be expected – hyperspectral programs are not included in the descriptions of programs – but we know they exist, from the earlier USMC UAV sensors introduction above (from the February 2018 budget...).

About the Author

Dr. David L. Rockwell

Dr. David L. Rockwell

Dr. David L. Rockwell has been Senior Analyst, Electronics at Teal Group since 1995, where he is editor of Teal's Military Electronics Briefing (MEB) as well as co-author of Teal's annual World Military Unmanned Aerial Systems: Market Profile and Forecast. He also contributes regular monthly military electronics News Briefs to the Teal Group website.

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