The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has not maintained an airborne tactical reconnaissance capability since the retirement of the reconnaissance variant of the F-111 in 2010.
Instead, the ADF has shifted focus to ‘traditional’ Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms such as the P-8 Poseidon and G550 Gulfstream aircraft, with unmanned ISR capabilities soon to follow.
These platforms are not designed to operate in a contested environment; a degree of air superiority is required to ensure optimised collection.
The ADF has been comfortably reliant on satellites to penetrate denied areas that require imagery collection, but the emergence of counter-space capabilities now puts this access at risk.
This article will discuss the role of airborne tactical reconnaissance, why it still exists, why the ADF needs a tactical reconnaissance capability and the innovative methods of applying tactical reconnaissance in small air forces like the RAAF.
For as long as airframes have existed – the airborne reconnaissance role has existed. From the very first balloons in the nineteenth century through to the modern age, aircraft have flown in the vicinity of the adversary to understand their posture and intentions.
Tactical reconnaissance aircraft have developed gradually with speed and altitude to penetrate defended airspace and gain access to sensitive areas. These aircraft were typically unarmed to maximise their operating speed, height, range and most importantly, survivability. At times during the Second World War, a lack of dedicated tactical reconnaissance assets necessitated modifications to existing fighter aircraft to meet the collection requirement.
This specific mission was known as ‘dicing’ – short for ‘dicing with death’ – due to the risk the aircraft faced while conducting the mission, particularly the post-strike bomb assessment.
During the Cold War, the tactical reconnaissance mission took on a strategic reconnaissance focus epitomised in the US by the U-2 Dragonlady and SR-71 Blackbird respectively. The advent of a satellite imagery capability led to less reliance on these platforms for strategic collection – although the U-2 remains in service and high demand, albeit in permissive airspace.
Despite the developments of space-based imagery and high-altitude collection platforms, the requirement for tactical reconnaissance in the US remained evident during the Vietnam War and the First Gulf War. The US Air Force (USAF) operated several modified fighter aircraft (RF-101 Voodoo and RF-4C Phantom) and aircraft-launched drones during the Vietnam War, particularly for the collection of target intelligence and post-strike assessment. RF-4C Phantom aircraft continued to serve through the First Gulf War providing vital intelligence on Republican Guard movements and Iraqi Air Force disposition. They were also misused to a certain degree, in the bid to find and fix Iraqi mobile missile launchers.
The inability to view or disseminate the imagery real-time from the venerable Phantoms no doubt compounded this issue. The USAF retired the RF-4C in 1995 and has not sought a replacement since – most likely due to the emergence of unmanned ISR platforms and reliance on space-based assets.
Advances and growth in satellite imagery collection, along with the increasing sophistication of ground-based air defences, have challenged the utility of tactical reconnaissance. Not only do imagery satellites collect more persistently against denied areas, but they are not subject to air defence systems which increasingly have greater reach and lethality.
The shoot-down of a Turkish RF-4E in Syrian airspace in 2012 highlights the threat that air defence systems pose. Despite these factors, countries with small air forces still invest and implement airborne tactical reconnaissance capabilities. Why? The simple answer is cost, access and availability. Not every country has access to satellite imagery. Even when they do, the imagery may not be available when it is required due to weather, communications, or other priorities.
Given satellite’s strategic nature and scarcity, a local commander’s tactical requirements may be lost amongst national strategic priorities. Tactical reconnaissance missions can be employed locally and responsively to support immediate requirements.
Local control and accessibility are two key reasons why the US Navy (USN) still operates a tactical reconnaissance capability through the Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) carried on the F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft. For a deployed carrier battle group operating in a potentially contested environment, satellite imagery will not be on tap for perusal.
Many European and Middle-Eastern nations have also invested in tactical reconnaissance capabilities due to their low cost and accessibility of the imagery collected. Podded electro-optical/infra-red sensors such as the DB-110 (a tactical derivative of the U-2 sensor) have proven popular in these countries due to their platform agnostic versatility with carriage options on the F-16 Fighting Falcon, GR-4 Tornado, or F-15 Eagle.
The DB-110 can collect almost 26,000 square kilometers of imagery per hour from a stand-off range of 150 kilometers. Low cost, seamless pod integration onto fighter platforms and flexibility of use provide significant benefits to small air forces that cannot afford to invest heavily in ISR space or air-breathing assets.
Further advances in tactical reconnaissance sensor capability also provide value for money. Take for example the development of multi-spectral sensors for detection of camouflaged and concealed targets at longer stand-off ranges.
Additionally, tactical reconnaissance sensors now have datalink connectivity resulting in an ability to pass image chips forward via airborne assets for early exploitation and analysis. Tactical reconnaissance vendors are also promoting requirements for expeditionary Processing, Exploitation, and Dissemination (PED) cabin for deployed operations.
Expeditionary PED is critical to the tactical reconnaissance mission, particularly if it is likely that communications bearers are at risk. Furthermore, the transmission of terabytes of imagery through a communications bearer for analysis may not be viable due to bandwidth constraints on protected networks. The significant volume of imagery data collected from tactical reconnaissance pods will necessitate a form of ‘triage’ of the imagery to focus analytical efforts on priority information requirements.
Therefore, sending analysts closer to the fight may be required to overcome the effects of a contested communications environment.
In a future high-intensity war, ADF will not have the unfettered use of space and Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) to which it has become accustomed. Near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia have made their intentions clear regarding the denial of space and communications bearers for the US and its allies during any potential conflict.
Therefore, the ability to carry an imagery collection sensor on an aircraft that can penetrate and survive in contested airspace, conduct a tactical reconnaissance mission, and return the imagery for exploitation is vitally important.
Early phases of a high-intensity war against a sophisticated Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) will see our traditional ISR assets operating at significant stand-off ranges that will degrade their operational utility.
The F-35 can penetrate IADS; however, the sensor suite is not optimised for long-range, wide field-of-view imagery collection.
The high-end battle may require traditional reconnaissance methods to get the job done.
This is particularly important for targeting intelligence and post-strike assessment – to ensure the commander apportions the right platforms and weapons against the right target sets to achieve the desired effects at the lowest risk available.
For a small but technically advanced air force like the RAAF, the acquisition of imagery sensors that can be carried in a fast jet-configured pod would provide a low-cost capability for imagery collection for use during high-intensity war, complementing available satellite and larger airborne imagery collection systems.
The tactical reconnaissance pods can also be utilised in permissive environments when tasked and could be considered for use to support the full spectrum of operations.
The most likely candidate platform for the ADF tactical reconnaissance capability would be the F/A-18F Super Hornet, given the already demonstrated role with the USN and SHARP.
The flexibility of a podded sensor allows the fighter aircraft only to carry the pod when required vice having a permanently fixed sensor with inherent penalties of sensor carriage. An airborne tactical reconnaissance capability could provide responsive, survivable, and high-quality imagery to the joint force a range of scenarios.
Imagery collection capabilities are facing increasingly sophisticated threats across the air, electromagnetic, space and cyber domains. The development of an ADF airborne tactical reconnaissance capability would add another layer to Australia’s tactical imagery collection requirements while also enhances its self-reliant military capability and its value as a contributor to coalition ISR operations.
Tactical reconnaissance provides necessary redundancy, survivability, and responsiveness required when the high-intensity war means commanders cannot access strategic collection capabilities – due to access or priorities – and reduces the information gush to a trickle.
In high-intensity war and pulling the digital ‘wet-film’ imagery from a pod-equipped fighter jet may be the only viable reconnaissance method available to reveal adversary posture and intent.
Squadron Leader Rodney ‘Neville’ Barton is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force.
The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.
This article was republished with the permission of The Williams Foundation and was first published in their column The Central Blue.