The E-3 Sentry has long been an critical asset for the US Air Force; each of the 32 active inventory aircraft can provide unparallelled air and surface situational awareness in a 250 nautical mile radius around the aircraft.
Now, manufacturer Boeing plans to test controlling a small UAV from an airborne Sentry in the annual (and presciently named) Empire Challenge exercise at USN’s Air Warfare Center Weapons Division China Lake.
AWACS as Remotely Piloted Aircraft Controller: Boeing plans to demonstrate control of the ScanEagle remotely piloted aircraft from an E-3 AWACS aircraft during the annual Empire Challenge coalition interoperability exercise that started Monday and runs through August 13 at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. “This will be the first time the company demonstrates full control of an unmanned aircraft by an airborne command and control platform during an operational scenario,” Boeing said in its release. A NATO AWACS will be equipped with a tactical common data link to relay commands to ScanEagle from an onboard operator. The scenario involves an antipiracy operation in which the AWACS detects suspicious activity and directs ScanEagle to a certain location to keep track of a suspect vessel—actually a truck acting as a surrogate pirate ship—while sending real-time video back to the AWACS to help determine whether the vessel is a threat.
— Daily Report, Air Force Association, 27 July 2010.
Seems like an interesting concept, although AWACS birds are already extremely high-value targets, being exactly the sort of expensive, low-density/high-demand asset that has to be spread thin in order to cover the C2BM (command and control battle management) requirements of US unified combatant commanders all around the globe.
Putting a bunch of UCAV pilots aboard—especially once UCAVs evolve into ACM-capable fighters in their own right—will make it just that much more important for the OPFOR to destroy these assets as quickly as they can.
IRONY ALERT: From the same AFA Daily Report piece, we learn that the Pentagon is looking to eliminate Joint Forces Command (JFCOM). For those not in the know, JFCOM is the sponsoring agency for the Empire Challenge coalition interoperability exercise.
JFCOM in Crosshairs of Pentagon Advisory Board: The Defense Business Board has identified the elimination of US Joint Forces Command as one way of trimming the Defense Department’s excess overhead. This move is among the initial observations from the senior advisory panel’s look into how the Pentagon could shed more than $100 billion in nonessential overhead between Fiscal 2012-16 to free up funds for modernization and personnel. Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked for the board’s input. According to press reports, board members think Norfolk, Va.-based JFCOM is ripe for the ax since it is bloated with more contractors on its payroll than military and civilian personnel, and some of its organizations apparently have the same mission and even similar names. The panel is scheduled to submit its final recommendations to Gates in October. Already Virginia lawmakers, including Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), are circling the wagons to save the command. (See The Hill report and Virginian-Pilot report.) (McDonnell statement) (Cantor statement) (Scott statement)