After nearly 10 years of work, the United Arab Emirates Air Force and Air Defence (AFAD) is preparing to bring into full operation one of the most sophisticated small-nation network-enabled warfare architectures yet developed, with capabilities superior to those of many middle-ranking air forces around the globe.
The UAE’s focus on networked capabilities reflects continuing instability in the Middle East. AFAD commander Maj Gen Khalid Bin Abdullah says the modernisation effort “has been driven by geo-political and geo-military problems around us in the Gulf. There have been more than 30 regional conflicts in the last 10 years. We have to be ready for any kind of action.”
Khalid told the Defense News Middle East Air Chiefs conference in Dubai last month that new threats had emerged over the past seven to eight years, calling for new measures, “especially ballistic missile defence”. AFAD’s plans had been influenced by “terrorism taking different forms, information cyber war becoming crucial, and weapons of mass destruction”, he said.
Khalid said the UAE’s new network architecture would be demonstrated in 2008, but “we will be fully operational by the end of 2007”. Last year, AFAD and other UAE service arms began a rolling programme of exercises and system demonstrations, including the progressive introduction into service of the Lockheed Martin F-16E/F Block 60 fighter.
“Our objective is to develop what we call infosphere capability,” Khalid said. “This will give us complete interoperability.”
The UAE’s command facilities include a national air operations centre and joint operations centre; a national fibre-optic military data network; a national high-speed tactical radio grid; a proprietary tactical datalink system – Link UAE 2, or LU 2 – with upgrades under way to provide Link 16 connectivity with allied and coalition forces; and an early warning and reconnaissance system based on commercial satellite imagery, which AFAD controls on behalf of all service arms.
The network also encompasses naval and land force headquarters units, with the army’s Boeing Apache helicopters being fully integrated into the net as they are upgraded from AH-64A to AH-64D standard. Army tactical UAVs and tethered aerostats are also expected to join the network soon. A competitive research and development programme for a vertical take-off and landing unmanned air vehicle is nearing maturity, involving Schiebel, Sweden’s CybAero and South Korea’s Ucon Systems.
Focus on C2
Future developments may include more-capable surface-to-air missile systems, high- and medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned air vehicles, and manned surveillance and battle management aircraft.
The UAE had been preparing to acquire five Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes upgraded to Hawkeye 2000 configuration and Congressional approval for a $400 million deal was formally requested in September 2002. But Khalid says AFAD is now focusing on expanding its command and control capabilities, given the air surveillance capabilities of the UAE
and the Gulf Co-operation Council. “Development of the infosphere demands very powerful data fusion,” he says. “This doesn’t mean information data fusion, but rather how to extract knowledge from that information.”
The UAE began planning for a network-enabled capability in the early to mid-1990s, first focusing on “system of systems” concepts. Khalid says air defence requirements dominated those early plans. “We studied it for eight to 10 months, and decided we had to modernise incrementally. We were expecting to buy new aircraft, but we discovered the most important thing was command and control, which is the backbone of modernisation and integration. So in 1995-96 we started establishing a complete fibre-optic backbone for the entire AFAD battle connectivity.”
The project – Al Sharyan – was contracted to Lucent Technologies, which rolled out a time division multiplexed architecture in two development phases, and retained a role in system support. The system includes a secure AFAD intranet that links “all our air bases and all different commands”, as well as a combined forces intranet, says Khalid.
Development of the high-speed, ground-to-air tactical radio – or GATR – began in 1998, when a $200 million contract was awarded to Thales. That included ground stations and airborne radios for the UAE’s Dassault Mirage 2000-9s, BAE Systems Hawk trainers, and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters.
Khalid says GATR gives AFAD aircraft seamless connectivity within UAE airspace, including fully automatic establishment and maintenance of network linkages. “Today the pilot does not have to change anything. From take-off, wherever he goes, from the Arabian Sea to the Arabian Gulf, anywhere in the UAE, he is automatically transferred without changing channels.” The system has recently been upgraded to support Have Quick II waveforms, allowing secure communications during coalition operations.
The UAE’s airborne tactical datalink capability, based on Thales equipment, was introduced as part of AFAD’s first Dassault Mirage 2000 purchase in the mid-1980s. The basic datalink was upgraded in 1992, improving speed and security, hence the designation LU 2.
Thales received a follow-on, $45 million contract in 2000 to supply GATR and LU 2 terminals for the F-16 Block 60. “This allows interoperability between the Mirage 2000 and the F-16 with complete transparency,” says Khalid. “They can work together in one formation.”
LU 2 also carries information from the two fighters’ electronic warfare systems and their sensors, including imaging sensors, which is “transferred to the ground in real time”.
AFAD’s air operations centre near Abu Dhabi, developed by Northrop Grumman’s Electronic Systems division, first demonstrated the ability to provide a total national air picture to any level of AFAD command two years ago. AFAD pilots have “complete 360° situational awareness from take-off to landing on every single mission”, he adds.
Khalid says the volume of data expected to be transferred between the F-16 and the network was a key factor in the UAE’s decision to specify a significantly more capable data-fusion capability in the Block 60 mission system compared with earlier versions of the fighter. “The F-16 Block 60 is the first aircraft ever to have 10 simultaneous pictures in real time in the cockpit. We have three pictures within pictures, so we have 10 independent real-time sensors that can be presented for the pilot, with complete missionisation options for each available in advance through the mission planning system.”
That capability, in turn, demanded measures to reduces the pilot workload, says Khalid, the main reason why “we have invested a lot in the autopilot and auto-throttle, to make it easier for the pilot to concentrate on the mission objective”.
Expectation that the UAE will take part in future coalition operations with its
F-16s was a major driver behind decisions to modify the AFAD communications architecture to include Link 16 and integrate the Have Quick II and LU 2 waveforms, says Khalid. This was achieved only after overcoming problems of cost and securing technology release from the USA.
“If interoperability with coalition partners has one difficulty, it is releasability,” says Khalid. “Releasability in a timely manner is crucial because if you develop your own system, you cannot come back again. We spent a lot of money, especially with the F-16, to have interoperability between LU 2 and Have Quick II because we believe interoperability is extremely important.”
Regional air defence
The UAE is already working closely with other Gulf Co-operation Council member states to develop and maintain a shared regional air-defence system, which already provides a common, networked, recognised air picture across most of the region, with data exchange provided by a dedicated broadband fibre-optic network developed by GCC members.
The system allows operation of a “virtual command-and-control system with complete transparency”, says Khalid. “Each single state in the Gulf has a recognised air picture of the entire peninsula available to it. Today we can see an aircraft over Jordan or Saudi Arabia or Egypt in the UAE because the radar data is available from the other Gulf states. It is a composite picture, but when I say virtual, I mean any command-and-control system in the Gulf is capable of being the master command centre for any operation in the Gulf. It is completely transparent.”
Khalid confirms the multinational system is being upgraded. “We are trying to modernise the GCC network hardware, especially to resolve latency issues because we are expecting to upgrade for anti-ballistic missile defence. We are trying to be much more responsive and also to have capabilities for video conferencing, and for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information to be exchangeable.”
The GCC has been studying options for a theatre ballistic missile defence capability for at least three years. In 2004, AFAD commissioned Lockheed Martin to prepare concepts for networking existing multiple-country assets into a layered response architecture, including the UAE’s Raytheon Hawk missile batteries and Saudi Arabia’s Raytheon Patriot PAC-2 systems.
PETER LA FRANCHI / DUBAI