Electronic Weapons: Israeli AWACS Rapidly Evolves

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May 16, 2021: In April 2021 Israel presented Oron, which appears to be a new version of its air force AWACs (Airborne Early Warning Aircraft) aircraft, but is equipped to detect and locate ground targets instead of manage air combat like an AWACS. Israel did not release many details on Oron, as in how many or an equipment list, but did describe it as meant to be used over combat zones where there was a lot of enemy activity to locate and identify so it could be quickly attacked. Oron uses much more powerful software to quickly analyze what is being detected down below and determine what targets are there and whether they are stationary or moving. This is similar to the system pioneered for submarines where a large library of previously identified sounds are stored in fast access hard drives or memory. Current systems use SSD (Solid State Drives) that access the data almost as fast as it does when data is stored in system memory. Oron uses this as well as machine learning (“neural networks”) that learn from current experience. The Israelis claim that Oron sensors and processing systems can locate and identify targets faster and more accurately, in any weather or light conditions, that any similar targeting system.

Oron appears to incorporate some of the features of the American E-8 JSTARS battlefield surveillance aircraft, which proved surprisingly valuable after their first combat use in 1991. JSTARS used an AESA (solid state) ground radar that could track friendly and enemy forces from the air as well as monitor electronic activity below and send that data, in real time, to ground commanders. This was a key element in defeating the Iraqi forces in 1991 and 2003, and later proved invaluable in locating Islamic terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan who were planting roadside bombs. JSTARS could track the enemy vehicles as they returned to their base after planting a bomb or carrying out some other form of nighttime mischief.

While the JSTARS uses a four-engine B-707 jet transport to carry its equipment, the air force has been seeking money to replace the 17 elderly (entered service in 1991) JSTARS aircraft with a new model based on a smaller aircraft. The main problem is that while JSTAS was very popular with the ground forces, the air force puts priority on aircraft needed to maintain control of the air and deliver attacks on surface targets. The Israeli Oron may change their minds because Oron is equipped to detect all sorts of ground targets and instantly pass that data on to airborne or surface-based units that can launch a guided missile at the targets.

AWACS aircraft have been around since World War II but the one that set the standard for performance was the American E-3, which entered service in 1977 and is still in service. E-3 is a modified B-707 transport. After 2000 it was realized that AWACS equipment could be carried in a smaller, twin-engine business jet. Israel pioneered this concept when they introduced their CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning) AWACS on a business jet in 2008. This aircraft carried a Phalcon conformal (it is built into the lower fuselage) phased array radar plus SIGINT equipment to capture and analyze enemy electronic transmissions, and a communications system that can handle satellite signals as well as a wide array of other transmissions. There are six personnel on board to handle all this gear, plus the flight crew. The Gulfstream G550 used for this can stay in the air for nine hours per sortie and can fly at up to 13,200 meters (41,000 feet).

The Israeli Air Force operates two CAEW AWACs and three similar ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft based on the slightly smaller G500 aircraft. The CAEW AWACS has also been sold to Italy, Singapore and the United States. Tweaks for improved performance or new capabilities (finding UAVs) are frequent for Israeli military systems because Israel is constantly under attack (or threat of attack), so gear it makes for itself is constantly being used and improved. This is very attractive to many potential foreign buyers.

The G550 is a larger version of the Gulfstream G400, which the U.S. Army uses as the C-20H transport. The U.S. Coast Guard, Air Force, and Navy also use militarized Gulfstreams (usually as C-37Vs). The 30 meter (96 foot) long aircraft has two engines and was built for long flights (over 11,000 kilometers). Current Gulfstream G550s cost about $50 million each.

The Phalcon radar is, in some respects, superior to the one used in the American AWACS. For example, Phalcon uses a solid-state phased array radar (thousands of small radar transmitters are fitted underneath the aircraft). The phased array radar, in combination with the latest, most powerful computers and other antennas for picking up a variety of signals, enables Phalcon to be more aware of what electronic equipment (airborne or on the ground) is operating up to 400 kilometers away. The phased array radar allows positions of aircraft on operator screens to be updated every 2-4 seconds, rather than every 20-40 seconds as is the case on the United States AWACS (which uses a rotating radar in a radome atop the aircraft). The first Phalcon system was fitted on a Boeing 707, although somewhat limited versions could be put onto a C-130. On a larger aircraft you can have more computers, and other electronics, as well as more human operators. But the major advantage of the Phalcon is that it is a more modern design. The U.S. AWACS dates to the 1970s and has undergone upgrades to the original equipment. The Israeli air force first installed Phalcon radar systems in an old Boeing 707 but the G550 replaced it.

The new Oron is another evolutionary step for these surveillance and control aircraft, which continue to become smaller, cheaper, lighter and more effective.

 


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