EP-X Program Starts To Take Shape

By David A. Fulghum

Boeing, which won the U.S. Navy contract for the P-8A patrol aircraft, is designing yet another variant for signals, communications and other intelligence gathering. The P-8A is being tailored for the still-unscheduled EP-X competition to replace the service's rapidly aging EP-3Es.

Company officials are working out how their EP-X version, with its roots in the 737, could be used to network an emerging worldwide fleet of new maritime aircraft including the EA-18G Growler, specialized for electronic attack; the P-8A, with its primary role of surveillance and antisubmarine warfare; the Australian Wedgetail for airborne early warning and control; and a variety of unmanned platforms. On the acquisition horizon is the Army's final version of its Aerial Common Sensor (ACS) platform and the Air Force's RC-135 Rivet Joint.

Other competitors for pieces of the EP-X, ACS and Rivet Joint (the third big-hitter in the world of airborne intelligence gathering) programs will likely include:

* Lockheed Martin, which is famous for its stealthy designs.

* Northrop Grumman, which is offering an EADS Airbus airframe and has long experience with the EA-6B Prowler electronic attack system.

* Raytheon, author of the active, electronically scanned array (AESA) small-target radar designs for the F/A-18E/F, EA-18G and F-15C/E.

* BAE Systems, which is diving deeply into the world of information warfare, network attack and cyberinvasion, along with ITT.

A Rivet Joint replacement was to have derived from the canceled E-10 (based on a Boeing 767).

The Boeing/Northrop Grumman E-10 also was the nursery for the 21-ft.-long Raytheon/Northrop Grumman advanced MP-RTIP radar, which would have been able to produce bursts of microwave energy strong enough to down cruise missiles and protect the large aircraft from surface-to-air and air-to-air weapons. The unmanned aircraft producers are also queuing up with air-launched versions of their products that could be carried on wing stations or a weapons bay.

Now much of that sensor, weapons and airframe innovation is being focused on the EP-X program, but the Navy is starting discussions with a disclaimer.

"EP-X is not a program of record yet," says Capt. Mike Moran, manager for both the P-8A and EP-X. "We've been directed [by senior Pentagon acquisition officials] to do an analysis of alternatives (AOA) looking at the full spectrum of assets currently available, Defense Dept.-wide, both manned and unmanned, to see what may help facilitate [definition of] that requirement."

Robert Watt from Booz Allen Hamilton was recently tapped to lead the EP-X AOA. The Office of the Secretary of Defense has directed the Navy to proceed with the AOA, and it also approved the EP-X study plan.

Some of the services' needs are already known, including level-two UAV control, which means sharing data with Northrop Grumman's Fire Scout unmanned helicopter and long-endurance, Broad-Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) system. Initial operating capability is set for 2021. While air-launched UAVs are quickly coming of age, Moran says they are not part of the initial analysis. "We're trying to identify the lines of the EP-X's digital battlefield."

While trade studies continue, the potential is for EP-X to have radar, electro-optical and infrared sensors, advanced automation aids and communications for both line and sight and beyond line of sight with Common Data Link, high-bandwidth satcom and Links 11 and 16. There also will be VHF, UHF and HF channels so that targets can be handed off to tactical operators.

The long-range vision of EP-X is that it be a multi-intelligence-collection system that bridges the gap between the Navy's patrol and intelligence-gathering squadrons. It also eliminates disconnects among the Navy, Army and Air Force.

"The VP [patrol] and VQ [sigint] communities have been merging since 1998 and we think there's going to be even more cross-pollenization," says Tim Norgart, Boeing's director of business development for airborne antisubmarine warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems.

"[We envision] using a baseline architecture with one [Open Microprocessor Initiative] across both programs and then pushing it out to the other services as they start upgrading their capability," he says. "We don't want the Navy to have to invest in a [separate sigint] architecture and operator-machine interface since there are going to be a lot of VQ guys going to VP squadrons and vice versa. Our idea is that the radar operator on a P-8 can, the next day, go flying on an EP-X and everything will look the same. Capability packages that are in the sigint mission set today could be balled up and run as applications on an architecture that is as robust as the P-8. All these architectures are going in that direction."

Conceptually, other operational specialists picture an even more tightly woven structure in which, for example, 60 aircraft are home-ported at a central location such as Tinker AFB, Okla., and are managed by contractor logistics support. They deploy on customized missions with mixed Army, Navy and Air Force aircrews and even take over the special missions and experimental payloads role when needed. They deploy 30-60 days at a time to bases where extra spares and support are available. Planners could choose perhaps six capabilities out of a selection of 10 roll-on, roll-off payloads to tailor the mission.

Meanwhile, "we're concentrating on the cooperative data links so that the EW suite on a P-8A and an EP-X has the ability to reach into an EA-18G to find out where it has been, what it is collecting and what it is going after next," Norgart says. "Being able to move that information around to make a single picture lets there be an [electronic warfare/electronic attack] battle manager. We want to do that without an operator having to intervene all the time. We need the right system architecture and software, so that when you have information of interest, it pulls from everyone else that's in the system. We also need the opportunity to put information together and let analysts take a look and then move it into the cockpit of a Hornet that's ready to launch."

The question then becomes, "Where would those analysts be?" Boeing's design gives some hints. While the P-8A has five operator stations, the company's EP-X design has 14 stations and terabytes of processing power. And the mission package weighs about twice that of the current EP-3E.

"It's hard to do indications and warnings from 5,000 mi. away," Norgart suggests. "Retaining the option of having them on board the EP-X, working with unmanned nodes, will be a need well into the future."

One scenario of interest has a carrier battle group moving toward an area of interest with three P-8s in the air. One escorts the battle group and two gather information on the route ahead. Even farther out - over the coastline and perhaps up to 50 mi. inland - are three UAVs linked to the P-8s. An EP-X would be at the top of the operational pyramid putting data into the network and ensuring the systems can all talk to each other.

"I can see some real synergies [between EP-X and Growler]," says Paul Summers, Boeing's director of airborne sigint campaigns. "We'll have the ability [with EP-X] to detect emitters pretty far out there. Using Growler to suppress some of those target emitters, while [EP-X] is doing something else, could be a great help. The Growler has a selective, reactive capability that can focus on unique emitters with very high-power jamming."

EW experts note that effects can be produced at ranges that are the sum of the aircraft's radar and the radio-frequency sensor that is being affected. If an AESA radar's range is 250 mi. and a surveillance radar is 200 mi., effects could be produced at 450 mi., as an example.

"Given the number of available EA-18Gs and the larger footprint of the EP-X, it might be wise to assign the individual, specialized tasks to Growlers and use the EP-X as the battlefield manager of surveillance, targeting and electronic warfare," Norgart says. "The integrator of the picture can put together the target package and place it in the cockpit of the first strike aircraft that is ready to launch. You also could pulse the guy already over the battlefield to make an electro-optical picture for the launch aircraft that tells him, ýýýThat's what your target looks like right now.' That power is made possible by having analysts - right there at the fight - sort through what's important and what's not and send it where it needs to be. In 40 years, it may be automated, but not yet."

The Pentagon is working hard to abandon the world of proprietary hardware and software, and Boeing is supporting the move. The company's offering will use the foundation of the P-8A's avionics mission system architecture, which is open. It uses a Microsoft model with a set of standard applications and specific interfaces. Other companies can then import third-party code or equipment into the existing architecture.

"It won't be easy, but that's the concept," Summers says. "We're taking it to the next level in our version of the EP-X and that falls right into the area of multi-intelligence [gathering]. Multi-int's definition will expand and change over time. Currently it means active radar and passive sensors. We have radar requirements that would lend itself to AESA, but that's not required until well into the technology development phase, which is about 18 months away."

Boeing is looking at several options for an EP-X radar. The bigger the array, the smaller the target that can be detected. One concept is a radar in a canoe along the centerline. Another involves conformal side arrays, although they may not necessarily be flush or embedded in the aircraft structure.

"Any aircraft radar is designed to do many things in the RF spectrum," says Syd Abernethy, the company's EP-X business development manager. But developers have to discipline themselves because "there are inherent limitations in what and when you can do something while working at maximum fidelity. If there is an emitter out there, you can use your sensors passively and then put radar on it to define the target. Another way is to conduct active, wide-area scans and then isolate an identification function with the passive systems. You want to give the mission commander the flexibility to use all those tools."

The Navy's formidable requirement is to pack all the multi-int capabilities, including information operations, into a single expeditionary aircraft with a small logistics footprint. But that's not all. Current requirements also call for expendables (flares, chaff, sonobuoys and perhaps even UAVs) and a range of weapons. There is also the potential for electronic attack.

"If we get the size, density of elements and flexibility within the radar that we require, it could be leveraged into an electronic attack capability," Summers says. "It's unclear whether the Navy will evoke that capability. I look forward to the opportunity of wading into the E-10's mission set. We'll have broad frequency-jamming capability, and we'll be able to build on that as we see the need. It's the Navy's plan that all the tools are in place for improvements to be incremental."

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