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ACS gives aircraft the edge in communications electronic warfare

The intelligence services are bustling with activity. For months, they've been trying to track down a terrorist group operating in the Iraq-Syria border region and posing a threat to national security. 

 Corroborating sources indicate that the group has set up a training camp in the desert. High-ranking leaders are likely present at the site, making it a high-value target.

Over the last few days, the Army has deployed a whole range of surveillance assets in the area to glean as much intelligence as possible from radio transmissions, phone conversations, emails, aerial photographs and satellite imagery.

At headquarters, all this information is meticulously analysed and seems to confirm the existence of a camp. But to be completely sure, an ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) aircraft must be dispatched to the location.

Easy to use, ultra-high performance

Thousands of miles away, at a coalition forward operating base near the theatre of operations, three specialist officers are getting ready to join the two pilots on the ISR plane.

They know exactly what they need to do:

  • Sergeant Tomlinson, 24, will control the camera mounted under the front part of the aircraft. He’ll be the eyes of the mission.
  • Staff Sergeant Saïd will be the ears. On his console screen, he’ll listen to the electromagnetic signals captured over the area and perform technical analysis.
  • Major Kristoff will command the mission. After 20 years in the service, he’s an expert in electronic warfare. He’ll coordinate the search and fuse the intelligence from the various sensors.

The ISR plane doesn’t look like a military aircraft at first glance, but with Thales's Airborne COMINT Solution (ACS) on board, it provides a formidable communications intelligence (COMINT) capability:

  • The interface on the console used to analyse the electromagnetic data is very easy to use and is designed to minimise operator workload.
  • An interception, detection and direction-finding system precisely locates and identifies enemy signals and, when possible, allows operators to listen in.
  • A complex antenna system specially designed for this aircraft ensures a very high level of performance.

Major Kristoff can take some credit for the ACS solution’s intuitive user interface. He helped design the ISR aircraft and worked with the Thales teams at the system integration phase, so in many ways this project is his baby — and he's rightly proud of it.

Effective action with reduced risk to life

With everyone strapped in their seats, the aircraft lines up for take-off and the two-hour flight to the area of interest. Major Kristoff and Staff Sergeant Saïd are at their screens, re-checking the data prepared for them by headquarters. These precious details will be crucial to the mission’s success.

As they approach their objective after an uneventful flight, Saïd begins to pick up radio signals. The area is almost completely uninhabited, so it must be the suspects. Thanks to the ACS system, he quickly locates the exact source of the transmission.

Sergeant Tomlinson is staring intently at his screen, studying every detail of the imagery from the camera under the plane. A few minutes later, it provides a positive ID on the training camp.

Kristoff immediately uses a secure line to report the camp’s exact position to a detachment of special forces on the ground. Their mission is to observe the camp at close quarters and gather as much information as possible while the ISR aircraft stays on station.

The soldiers find an ideal vantage point overlooking the camp. Concealed behind a rocky outcrop in two armoured vehicles, they observe the enemy and count 15 men, some of them heavily armed, and four pickups. No doubt about it — this is an active training camp.

This time, the soldiers are sure they’re looking at the terrorists they’ve been after for months, and can even confirm the presence of two of the movement's most senior figures. The camp’s coordinates are relayed to two fighter jets, which move in on the target. Within minutes, the training camp is neutralised.

Major Kristoff receives confirmation of the strike and asks the ISR pilot to make one final pass over the site to assess its status. The imagery from the plane's gimbal-mounted optronics suite appears on Tomlinson’s screen, confirming that the mission has been a success. They can return to base.

On the flight back, the team forwards all the mission data to headquarters. It will be fed into the Army's tactical and technical reference databases to help plan future missions and keep coalition soldiers out of harm's way.

As Major Kristoff watches the clouds speed past his window, he reflects on the sources of information that made this mission possible — data from the electronic sensors, but also a lot of live intel gathered by the servicemen and women on the ground. He knows they must have put their lives in danger to get that information, and that taking risks is all part of a soldier’s life. But he also knows that other people are working, day after day, to limit the risks by devising new high-tech solutions that will help ensure mission success. Already, Kristoff is looking ahead to his next assignment. Next summer, he’ll become the first COMINT (COMmunications INTelligence) Director for the Army’s new SIGINT (SIGnals INTelligence) aircraft. With Thales technologies on board to detect and analyse radar and communication signals, the new plane will be the jewel in the crown of the armed forces' airborne electronic intelligence capability.

Integration experts

The ACS solution can be adapted to any type of aircraft, and platform integration calls for real technical expertise. Thales is recognised throughout the world for its expertise in this area.

We can manage all aspects of the project, including supplying the solution and integrating it on the aircraft. Integration is a complex process, because the other equipment on the aircraft mustn’t interfere with the ACS solution, and vice versa. It takes a lot of experience and some serious technical know-how,” says Thales's lead electronic warfare expert.