The key to the operation of modern complex systems in the information age, whether in the military or the commercial sector, is networking. Networking allows individual elements of the system to share information and coordinate their activities thereby achieving greater efficiency and effectiveness. Networking allows organizations to operate in new ways, faster, over greater distances and with fewer assets.
The U.S. Navy is engaged in a far-reaching transformation based on the exploitation of information technologies. At the heart of this transformation is the concept of “network-centric warfare.” This concept involves, first, connecting all the platforms and major systems deployed by the U.S. Sea Services — ships, submarines, aircraft, unmanned vehicles and Marine Corps units — and even joint forces so they can share information, establish domain awareness and create a common operating picture (COP). The establishment of a COP is critical to the operation of joint and combined forces. Once interconnected, commanders can exploit the power inherent in a large pool of distributed platforms and systems through innovative operational approaches.
Naval networking allows the exploitation of information from a variety of sensors distributed throughout the battle space to be gathered and fused so as to achieve maritime domain awareness (MDA). MDA is about more than just threat detection; it is comprehensive, high confidence situational awareness. This awareness tremendously enhances the capability to detect and respond to threats. It is easier to identify threats, track them and coordinate responses with MDA.
The modern battlefield is becoming an extremely complex environment. There are likely to be many neutral as well as hostile and friendly objects. Moreover, U.S. forces must coordinate the movement or launch of manned and unmanned air, sea and ground platforms, offensive ordnance and missiles and defensive ordnance. There is also an increasing requirement to conduct both offensive and defensive Electronic Warfare. Managing friendly forces has become almost as great a challenge as dealing with hostile ones.
An example of the innovative operational concepts enabled by naval networking is Naval Integrated Fire Control Counter Air (NIFCA). The goal of NIFCA is to create a joint tracking and fire control network that can support joint, distributed and long-range defensive fires. NIFCA is intended to create the best opportunity to detect, identify and track targets, and to put the right shooter on the right target.
It is difficult to overestimate the value to the surveillance, reconnaissance and warning missions of an airborne sensor that can see much further than a sensor on the ground/at sea and provide early warning of attack. With its powerful radar, the E-2C Hawkeye aircraft can identify and track multiple targets. It has long legs and the mobility of its aircraft carrier base, and is emerging as one of the central platforms of Navy networking.
The first mission of the E-2 Hawkeye is air-to-air and air-to-surface targeting, and directing weapons to the target. E-2 operators are very good now at surface search and finding ships. However, with the addition of improved communications capabilities — such as Link-16 — more powerful computer processing, advanced control work stations, an integrated satellite communications suite and the Navy’s Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), the E-2s are now much more than an airborne early warning system. These new command, control and communications systems being deployed on the E-2Cs will enable the Hawkeye to serve as a central C2 node in a distributed NIFCA architecture. The E-2s will be able to integrate with other aerial surveillance platforms such as AWACS, Global Hawk and P-3s to more efficiently manage the kill chain.
The E-2C was designed for and currently operates best over water. However, E-2Cs are not just for the Navy anymore. They have done numerous land-based missions: counter-narcotics, Operation Southern Watch, and they helped on Katrina. With planned upgrades, the E-2 will be able to sort out ground clutter. This will enable it not only to locate and track low flying aircraft, sea-skimming missiles and ground hugging aerial vehicles, but even to search for ground targets.
The cornerstone of the NIFCA network will be the E-2D, an advanced version of the venerable E-2 Hawkeye family of carrier-capable, airborne sensor platforms. The E-2D will have a new solid-state, electronically steered UHF radar capable of conducting surface as well as airborne surveillance, integration of multiple sensors, an advanced tactical cockpit and software to support theater missile defense engagements. It will have better networking/processing power with the ability to do IP networking. The E-2D will also have in-flight refueling, enabling the Hawkeye to stay airborne twice as long as before.
The Advanced Hawkeye is scheduled to reach the Fleet in 2011. Once deployed, it will provide the Navy and the joint force with enhanced situational awareness, battle management and theater missile defense capabilities.
The E-2 fleet is evolving from a primarily Airborne Early Warning platform to an airborne command and control platform, providing information, connecting other platforms and making decisions. With their data links they will be coordinating various assets from the tactical air controller on the ground while communicating with the Combined Air Operations Center and ships at sea and also reaching back to the United States with direct satellite feeds to the Pentagon.
The E-2s have always worked well with Aegis; they are acquiring the capabilities, notably Link-16, that will enable them to also work closely with AWACs and Patriot.
The E-2Ds central role in NIFCA should not obscure its potential contribution to offensive operations, as well. The ability to fuse data from many sources into a COP and direct the fires of different systems against air and missile threats is one side of the networked command and control coin. The other side is an ability to support offensive operations. The ability to track an inbound missile in order to enable the Aegis to launch a Standard Missile 3 is also the ability to backtrack the trajectory to its point of origin. This is why E-2 personnel are now working at the Nellis and Eglin Air Force Base strike centers.
The evolution of the E-2 from an airborne early warning platform to a joint-capable command and control node demonstrates the critical importance of an open architecture. Upgrades to the E-2 are relatively easy to make and advances in commercial technologies can be readily inserted.
While there are dozens of smaller contingencies taking place on a regular basis overseas that don’t need Airborne Early Warning, once there is any chance of significant opposition, the Navy really needs a Hawkeye overhead. It is hard to imagine an ESG, or a significant Marine Corps operation without an E-2C keeping watch overhead.
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