Analysis – The UK overhauls integrated air defence system
Two major developments for British airpower have occurred over the past two months: The first had the British media champing at the bit and plane-spotters worldwide salivating, namely the arrival in the UK of the first four of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) new Lockheed Martin F-35B LIGHTNING-II fighters at RAF Marham in Norfolk, eastern England on 4 June. The second event barely merited a mention beyond a couple of sporadic appearances in the specialist media. Nonetheless, the decision to award IBM a contract worth up to $105 million in late April to roll out a new air Command and Control (C2) system across the RAF under the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) Project Guardian initiative is highly significant. Together with the Eurofighter TYPHOON-F/GR4A fighter, and the platform eventually chosen to replace the RAF’s existing Boeing SENTRY AEW.1 (the UK designation for the Boeing E-3D SENTRY) Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft, widely tipped by MOD sources to be the Boeing B737-700ER AEW&C platform, Project Guardian will play an essential role in the protection of the UK from air attack.
Underscoring the indispensable role that the RAF plays in underpinning the UK’s defensive counter-air posture, the latest incarnation of the UK’s Joint Doctrine Publication entitled UK Air and Space Power published in December 2017 stresses the control of the air as one of the four key pillars of airpower, together with the collection of ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) information, attack and air mobility.
“UK air power has the capability to protect the UK and its Overseas Territories from attack … The RAF is responsible for protecting UK airspace and stands ready to intercept rogue aircraft on a permanent basis,” the doctrine elucidates, continuing that, “delivering this capability requires an integrated air defence system, including the necessary aircraft, ground-based systems, sensors, C2 capabilities and associated infrastructure.”
Thus the procurement of a new air C2 system under Project Guardian remains as much a reflection of RAF doctrine today, as the service’s Chain Home network of ground-based early warning radars and the accompanying Dowding System of ground-control interception stations did during the Second World War in the face of a German Air Force air attack.
William ‘Bat’ Masterson, the late 19th Century American army officer, journalist and gambler warned to never bet on a sure thing, nevertheless, RAF sources shared with the author earlier in the year that IBM, the incumbent supplier of the UKASACS (UK Air Surveillance and Control System, which Project Guardian will replace) was likely to win the contract, which they were officially awarded on 24 April. In order to understand the capabilities which the Project Guardian initiative will confer, it is worth looking at the existing UKASACS in some detail.
RAF sources informed MONCh that it is the Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) which exercises control of the TYPHOON-FGR4 fighters on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) held at a few minute’s readiness to respond to attempted incursions of UK airspace, or to aircraft acting suspiciously within it. These aircraft bring a kinetic element to their mission with a mixed load of MBDA ASRAAM (Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missiles) infrared guided air-to-air weapons, and Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles) active radar homing Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM).
The UKASACS architecture includes several vital components: There is a CRC located at RAF Boulmer in northeast England. The CRC’s role is to federate radar imagery gathered from a disparate array of ground-based air surveillance radars scattered around the UK which, in turn provide full overlapping radar coverage of UK airspace and its approaches. This imagery is federated at RAF Boulmer to form the UK’s Recognised Air Picture (RAP). Alongside air surveillance coverage of Norwegian and Icelandic airspace, the UK forms part of NATO’s Air Policing Area-1.
The RAP is built from an array of ground-based air surveillance radars positioned around the UK at Remote Radar Heads (RRHs). These include RRH Benbecula (equipped with a Lockheed Martin Type-92 L-band (1.215 gigahertz/GHz to 1.4GHz) ground-based air surveillance radar) in the Outer Hebrides Islands off the northwest Scottish coast; RRH Buchan (Type-92) located on the northeast Scottish coast; RRH Brizlee Wood (Lockheed Martin AN/TPS-77 L-band ground-based air surveillance radar) on the northeast English coast; with RRH Staxton Wold (formerly equipped with an AN/TPS-77, see below) and RRH Neatishead (AN/TPS-77), both being located on the northeast coast of England.
Finally, RRH Portreath (BAE Systems AR-327 Commander S-band (2.3-2.5GHz/2.7-3.7GHz) ground-based surveillance radar) located in southwest England. Earlier this year on 29 January, the UK MOD declared that the AN/TPS-77 located at RRH Staxton Wold was operational after having been moved to RRH Saxa Vord on the island of Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Islands off Scotland’s northeast coast. Although not confirmed by the UK MOD it is reasonable to assume that the activation of the AN/TPS-77 at RRH Saxa Vord is to provide enhanced air surveillance over the north-eastern approaches to the UK.
Beyond the radars mentioned above, the UKASACS can also receive radar information from the AEW.1 fleet, and their accompanying Northrop Grumman AN/APY-2 S-band airborne surveillance radars. Documents seen by the author are not more specific regarding how this is achieved, although it is possible that the NATO Link-16 tactical datalink, transmitting across a waveband of 960 megahertz/MHz to 1.215GHz, is used for the exchange of track and tactical information. This may also be the case for the aircraft on QRA, while Royal Navy warships such as the ‘Daring/Type-45’ class destroyers that retain an anti-air warfare roll can use their LINK-11 TDLs (2-29.9MHz, 225-399.975MHz) to share tactical and track information from their BAE Systems’ SAMPSON S-band and Thales S1850M L-band naval surveillance radars.
Moreover, the RAF’s Raytheon AN/FPS-132 Ultra High Frequency (UHF, 420-450MHz/890-942MHz) Ballistic Missile Early Warning Radar located at RAF Fylingdales airbase in northeast England also feeds information into the RAP, as does the UK’s National Air Traffic Control Service (NATS). The ‘knitting’ in terms of the communications linking these disparate assets of the UKASACS together, beyond the TDLs and conventional Very/Ultra High Frequency (300MHz to 3GHz) radio communications used for air-to-ground/ground-to-air communications include the legacy Marconi UNITER secure telephone system which was itself developed to support the UKASACS’ predecessor the IUKADGE (Improved UK Air Defence Ground Environment) air C2 system. UNITER is in turn part of the RAF’s Fixed Telecommunications System which carries secure and unsecured voice and written communications with the BOXER network carrying fibre optics, satellite and microwave links. Although no details have been published, it is possible that the BOXER network links the RRHs to the CRCs given the levels of communications redundancy that it carries via its use of fibre optics, satellite and microwave communications.
At the core of the UKASACS is IBM’s UKASACS C2 System (UCCS) which furnishes the hardware (work stations and servers), software and networking equipment necessary to federate the RAP and perform air C2. The UCCS is located at RAF Boulmer, with a backup facility located at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, eastern England. Official UK documents state that 41 workstations are located at each facility, with the two centres providing built-in redundancy if one becomes unserviceable. Once again, the UK’s civilian air traffic control organisation comes into play, with the UCCS also receiving information from the Flight Plan Dissemination System which provides flight plan information from NATS. The UKASACS architecture has already been cycled through one upgrade via the Project Cerberus initiative. MOD literature described this as “an obsolescence-driven mid-life technical refresh and life extension to the data handling, processing and display components of UCCS.” Back in 2012 when the tender for the Project Cerberus work was published by the MOD’s Air Command and Control Systems Delivery Team the specification continued that this effort would extend the, “UCCS design life until Project Guardian or equivalent replaces UCCS from 2019 onwards,” hence where we are today.
The UK government had originally planned to announce its plan to proceed with the Project Guardian acquisition in May/June 2017, although the decision of the British Government to call a general election last year effectively put these plans on ice until the outcome of the poll. The announcement by the MOD in April provides some additional flesh on the bone regarding the aims of Project Guardian. An official statement from the Ministry stated that the initiative, “will continue improving the rapid exchange of real-time command and control information and (the) speed and accuracy of decision-making,” ergo the overall C2 element of UK air defence is expected to become more responsive.
Nevertheless, a more detailed response by the UK MOD to a series of inquiries by the author provides a little more information. The MOD stated that Project Guardian will see a complete replacement of the current UCCS architecture which forms the central element of the UKASACS adding that, for all intents and purposes, the hardware, software and networking architecture of the UCCS will be completely replaced. The MOD in turn demurred from providing additional information as to what the new Project Guardian air C2 architecture could achieve which the erstwhile system could not, citing national security concerns. That said, broadly speaking, the new architecture is almost certain to improve the overall situational awareness of RAF air defenders, perhaps by ensuring that the RAP is both quicker to generate and more responsive than can be achieved today and that wider bandwidth data communications may accelerate the speed with which data can be shared throughout the C2 system.
The MOD added that work has already commenced on the design, development and installation of the new architecture which is expected to be completed over the next decade. Moreover, the MOD confirmed that “existing in-service radars will contribute to Project Guardian as they do for the current UCCS system. Any changes at the Radar Heads are expected to be minimal.” This minimal change could see new communications capabilities rolled out as a result of the initiative equipping the existing RRHs. Furthermore, the MOD noted that it has not yet confirmed whether a new ballistic missile early warning radar which the UK has stated its intention to procure will be networked into the Project Guardian architecture, specifying that, “the requirement for the Ballistic Missile Defence Radar has not been confirmed, so it is too early to answer.” The MOD response also states that despite procuring the new Project Guardian architecture, the UK will continue to honour its funding commitments to the overall NATO ACCS (Air Command and Control System) initiative.
To summarise, the ACCS initiative is a NATO-wide project led by the ThalesRaytheonSystems consortium which aims to replace a range of disparate Air C2 systems across the Alliance’s European membership with a single, scalable suite of hardware, software and communications links which are not only scalable according to national requirements, but can also be federated so as to provide a ‘Super-RAP’ of NATO’s European airspace. The ACCS ensemble can be used to help safeguard national, and hence alliance, airspace and for the planning, management and execution of air operations. To this end, NATO is procuring the ACCS architecture in both fixed and deployable configurations.
Curiously, the UK was originally a partner in the overall ACCS initiative but last decade suspended its involved in the programme with highly placed sources telling MONCh that this was because of concerns on the part of the UK at that, at the time, the ACCS architecture did not meet UK safety requirements. Since then the ACCS has continued to develop and is now being rolled out across the Alliance’s European membership. Although the Project Guardian system is distinct from ACCS the MOD confirmed to the author that the, “UK is part of the community that polices NATO airspace. The UK routinely inter-operates with NATO nations and NATO air defence systems, and this will continue.”
Presently, the UK is thought to share its national RAP with NATO’s Combined Air Operations Centre at Uedem in central Germany which is responsible for the protection of NATO’s European airspace as a whole. The inference in the MOD’s statement is that this relationship will continue with a gateway being provided for Project Guardian into the ACCS architecture to add the British RAP to the Super-RAP.
Financially, the UK will continue to pay into the ACCS budget via its contributions to the NATO Security Investment Programme with the ACCS procurement aspect costing circa $1.7 billion, according to NATO documents. At the same time, the UK is paying for the procurement of Project Guardian which has an expected procurement cost of $78 million, with the potential for this to increase to $105 million, according to the MOD if all the options of the contract are exercises with IBM. That said, this ‘double spend’ has been queried by some senior figures in the ACCS initiative who ask why the UK is effectively paying twice for a single air C2 system, particularly now that the ACCS is being rolled out and entering service, with those same sources arguing that the UK unfairly decided that the ACCS did not meet its safety criteria when the ACCS architecture was still at a comparatively early stage of development, and that such safety concerns are now no longer valid.
Politics aside, the advent of Project Guardian will represent the vital, yet largely unsung, element of British airpower doctrine and completes the overhaul of the UK’s defensive counter air posture together with the procurement of new AEW aircraft over the next decade and the outfitting of the TYPHOON-FGR4 with the future MBDA METEOR active radar homing AAM over the next five years. Together with the implementation of the ACCS, NATO’s European airspace will enjoy enhanced protection. In April 2017, NATO revealed that alliance aircraft intercepted Russian military aircraft flying in international airspace identification zones close to NATO airspace on 680 occasions in 2016; similar figures for 2017 do not appear to have been released. As relations between NATO and Russia remain chilly, it is not expected that there will be any such reduction in Russian Air Force activity. At least with the advent of Project Guardian and ACCS over the coming decade NATO will remain ever-more responsive to this ongoing threat.
Dr. Thomas Withington