Electronic Weapons: Twins Replace Quads

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March 21, 2022: The Italian Air Force, like many others, has switched to using smaller twin-engine aircraft for electronic support rather than the older, larger four-engine models. The latest addition to the Italian fleet is the G550 twin engine business jets for six new AISREW (Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Electronic Warfare) aircraft. A decade ago, the equipment required to make an AISREW aircraft possible would have required a larger four-engine transport. That’s because a decade ago the size, weight, power requirements and onboard equipment operators would not work in a twin-engine aircraft. Over the last few decades, the equipment used by these electronic support aircraft has gotten smaller, cheaper, more powerful and automated. That means less electrical power and onboard equipment operators are needed.

Using twin-jet business or airliner aircraft for military purposes was first popularized by Israel in 2006 when they put their first twin-jet AWACS (Air Warning and Control) into service. Israel used an early model G550 long-range business jet. The 40-ton Gulfstream G550 was able to carry and provide electrical power for the Israeli-made radar and electronics. The Israeli AWACS came with a Phalcon conformal (built into the lower fuselage) phased array radar, SIGINT (Signal intelligence) 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. Only six people were on board to handle all this gear, plus the flight crew of two. The Gulfstream G550 can stay in the air for over twelve hours per sortie, and can fly at up to 16,000 meters (51,000 feet). It's a larger version of the Gulfstream G400, which the U.S. Army used as the C-20H transport. The U.S. Coast Guard, Air Force and Navy also use militarized Gulfstreams. The Israeli example made other manufacturers of similar twin-engine aircraft that there was a new market for their aircraft.

The Italians already used two slower and cheaper twin-turboprop Super King Air planes. There are about 300 in military service. It’s not surprising that most people think of the Super King Air as a civilian aircraft because most of the 6,000 built since the 1960s have been for commercial, not military use. Yet over the decades more than a thousand King Airs have been bought, often second-hand, by the military because the price was right and the King Air could get the job done. Most are for ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance) missions. Beechcraft King Air 350 (and earlier models) models have long been used by the military for transport (the C-12 Huron), electronic warfare (RC-12), and ISTAR (MC-12) operations. Military use of the King Air began in the United States, where manufacturer Beechcraft is located, during the early 1970s. At first the U.S. Army adopted the King Air as the RC-12 and then used it for a wide variety of intelligence missions ever since. The current King Air 350 is a 5.6-ton, twin engine aircraft that evolved from the first King Airs that showed up in the 1960s as a 5.3-ton aircraft that could carry 13 passengers. In the 1960s a much improved 5.6-ton Super King Air version showed up.

The King Air inspired other manufacturers to offer their twin-turboprop aircraft for military use. This led to the discovery that larger twin-turboprop transports were also useful. For example, Italy uses two C-27Js as EW (Electronic Warfare) aircraft. C-27J is a 28-ton aircraft that can carry 9 tons for up to 2,500 kilometers and land on smaller airfields that the four-engine C-130 turboprop cannot handle. Italy also has fourteen C-130s used as transports, along with ten C-27Js.

Italy also uses four Italian-made ATR-72 twin turboprop aircraft for maritime patrol. This 22-ton aircraft is armed with AM39 Exocet anti-ship missiles, lightweight anti-submarine torpedoes, depth charges, and a pod-mounted machine gun. There is also a sonobuoy launcher, magnetic anomaly detector (to find large metal objects close to the surface), and a self-protection system (chaff, flares, jammers). Sensors carried will include an SAR (synthetic aperture radar) capable of tracking ships 220 kilometers away when the aircraft is at 3,000 meters altitude. Italy chose the ATR-72 over the older four-engine P-3C aircraft.

Pakistan used the Brazilian EMB 145 twin-jet airliner for their new maritime patrol aircraft. These replaced the older P-3C aircraft. Over 1,200 EMB-145s have been built since 1992 and in 1999 Brazil offered a military version, the R-99, for use as an AWACS, maritime patrol or ELINT aircraft. Pakistan is the second customer for the maritime patrol version and ordered three. These will replace the refurbished American P-3C Pakistan received in 2007. Six are still operational but they are older, four turboprop engine aircraft that are more expensive to operate.

Australia was the first customer for the Boeing 737 based E-7A “Wedgetail” AWACS and received its first two in 2009. Wedgetail is a militarized Boeing 737 transport. The cruise speed for the 737 is 910 kilometers an hour and the Wedgetail version has a crew of 8-12 pilots and equipment operators, who use the search radar and various other sensors. The 78-ton Wedgetail can stay in the air for more than ten hours per sortie. Wedgetail can refuel in the air and Australian Wedgetails often flew longer missions (14 hours or so) in the Middle East. The limit here was mainly crew fatigue.

Smaller, more powerful and cheaper electronics made smaller twin-jets practical and the most cost- effective aircraft for tasks long requiring four-engine turbo-prop or jet aircraft. Even the new U.S. Navy P-8 maritime patrol aircraft is based on the Boeing 767 twin-jet airliner. India is using six Airbus A320 transports, provided by Air India, for conversion to AWACS aircraft. More specifically this is an A319, which is one of the Airbus 320 series aircraft that are similar to the Boeing 767. These twin jet aircraft often replace earlier versions installed in the 1960s B-707 or DC-8 transports or four-propeller airliners like the Electra civilian airliner that first flew in 1954. Only 170 Electras were built but there were nearly four times as many built as P-3s. A few Electras and over 200 P-3s are still in service but will eventually be replaced by twin-jet aircraft.

 


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