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Easing the Pacific Fleet’s ISR Burden
The U.S. Seventh Fleet has been in the news a lot lately. It appears the challenge of trying to police a vast expanse of ocean stretching from the eastern coast of Africa to the Korean Peninsula with only a few dozen warships is running sailors ragged.
Unfortunately, the demands on America’s biggest forward-deployed fleet are only going to grow as China continues flexing its military muscle throughout the Western Pacific. President Trump has proposed increasing the pace of the naval shipbuilding program, but it will take many years before that translates into more warfighting resources for the Seventh Fleet. Washington needs to take other, faster steps that can help the fleet do its job.
So here’s an example of the kind of measure that might help. Both the Seventh Fleet and its Fifth Fleet counterpart operating in the Persian Gulf region have a stated requirement for better tracking and identification of hostile surface targets. Current airborne and overhead sensors either can’t see far enough while maintaining a safe distance from emerging threats or are challenged to provide sufficient detail to determine where threats are, and what they may be doing. The Navy needs a sensor that can see long distances and provides sufficient precision so that a target’s classification can be quickly understood while maintaining crew safety from the threat of surface to air missiles in the area.
It turns out such a sensor already exists; it just doesn’t belong to the Navy. It is the MSI family of sensors carried on the U-2 spy plane, and now also on the Global Hawk long-endurance drone. Made by UTC Aerospace Systems, the MSI family of systems has been continuously improved since it first debuted in the early 1990s. The latest version, designated the MS-177A, uses increased spectral resolution to monitor and identify targets in the maritime domain. The sensor capabilities stretch across the electromagnetic spectrum and provide exceptional long range imagery that can be rapidly disseminated to warfighters.
This increased spectral resolution, in concert with a large aperture, enables the MS-177 to see all sorts of things at distances that would be missed by the Navy’s current sensors. MS-177 provides day/night surveillance, haze penetration, and material discrimination at resolutions that enable autonomous target detection.
The defense department is currently considering an airborne demonstration of the sensor to assess its value in maritime target detection and ranging. House and Senate authorizing committees have noted in their reports on the fiscal 2018 defense budget that the sensor seems well-suited to anti-surface, anti-submarine and mine warfare areas where the U.S. Pacific Fleet and Seventh Fleet would likely be heavily stressed in any Pacific conflict. The sensor can be carried on Navy manned patrol aircraft, large unmanned aerial vehicles, or even modified business jets.
The planned demonstration of the sensor is precisely the kind of initiative needed to get help to the Seventh Fleet and other forward-deployed naval forces fast. By tapping into an already warm Air Force production line, the sensor could be deployed in support of U.S. Navy and coalition warfighters in half the time it would take to field a new system from scratch — maybe only three years versus six or seven. There is at present no other passive sensor that can provide high-resolution target data in multiple bands over such great distances.
Being passive is important. What that means in military parlance is that the sensor doesn’t generate a distinctive signal the way radar would that betrays its presence and might even provide a beacon for enemy attackers. All the MS-177A does is collect the telltale signatures that surface objects generate in the infrared or visible portions of the spectrum. Because it is passive, adversaries often won’t know they are being surveilled. But operating as it does in multiple spectral bands, the sensor can detect numerous details about threats that might seem well-hidden.
The MS-177A is also capable of covering a great deal of sea or land quickly, which is especially significant in the vast expanses of the Western Pacific. To be precise, it can monitor 37,000 square kilometers of area per hour, while still being able to focus in on particular spots with high resolution if objects of interest are detected. When it finds such objects — say, for example, a suspicious ship or a large truck hidden in the jungle — the MS-177A can distinguish the target from surrounding clutter and examine changes over prolonged periods of time to detect movement of forces.
Nothing in the current Navy portfolio of capabilities can do this at the same ranges or resolution, and with the same degree of persistence as the MS-177A. So it was eminently sensible to sponsor an airborne demonstration that might lead to early fielding of the sensor in support of the Navy. The Air Force has already invested in all the engineering and integration costs for its reconnaissance planes, and the Navy can save a great deal of time and money by leveraging that investment to rapidly field a much-needed capability on its own aircraft.
Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute and taught nuclear strategy at Georgetown University.