GUARDIANS OF THE SKIES: PROTECTING SOVEREIGN AIRSPACES AGAINST EVER-CHANGING THREATS

Advanced air defence solutions provide nations with trusted protection against rapidly evolving and increasingly volatile threats. Thales’s technologies hold the key to maintaining tactical superiority and strategic independence.

Mastery of the skies is a basic defensive requirement – and it has been since the dawn of military aviation just over a century ago. Today, the need to defend sovereign airspace is more complex than ever, as threats multiply and become more diverse.

“Threat dynamics are changing very fast,” says Helene Lesturgie, Product Line Manager at Thales. “The spectrum ranges from low, slow-flying targets up to hypersonic threats. You need to be able to detect all of these and you need an air command and control system to deal with them. Systems need to be very flexible, and they need to adapt as fast as the targets.”

The variety, velocity and complexity of new threats presents commanders with an increasing challenge. Hypersonic weapons are capable of speeds of Mach 5 and above – more than 6,000 km/h. Modern missiles are increasingly agile and can rapidly shift their trajectories. Meanwhile, armed drones are emerging as a new low-altitude threat.

None of these threats can be considered in isolation. The prospect of saturation attacks is an increasing concern. These are attacks that combine multiple threat types – high-speed and low-speed, high-altitude and low-altitude – to confuse and overwhelm air defences.

Eyes on the sky

To defend, you first need to detect as early as possible, in order to allow enough time to assess and react. Radar is the key. Today’s fully digital multi-function radars can pinpoint threats at any angle. Using 4D AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) technology, these radars are much more flexible in beam steering and they can stay on target much longer. Hence, they are capable of detecting a wider range of threats earlier than previous generations, from low-altitude, low-speed targets to highly manoeuvring threats.

But nothing stands still. As threats evolve, so must detection systems. “One of the problems with hypersonic and ballistic missile threats is generating an early warning,” says Luc Dini, Product Line Manager, Thales. “That’s why Thales proposes a new generation of low frequency radars in UHF and L bands. They are more sensitive, have a longer range and possess anti-stealth capabilities, so targets can be detected earlier

Radar data is the lifeblood of air defence systems. But raw data is only the starting point. In order to engage a threat – or threats – commanders need to understand the whole picture in real time.

“The ability to aggregate multiple sources of data is critical,” says Lesturgie. “You need to be able to integrate data from passive and UHF radar, as well as from conventional primary and secondary radar to monitor the full spectrum of threats.”

Comprehensive air defence

What happens to data after it has been collected is an increasing focus of attention. Technologies such as data fusion are already used to make sense of the mass of data, so it can be used to determine how threats are tackled. Data is processed in less than a second.

“The next step is to build a fast reaction network with real-time dynamic management of resources,” says Luc Dini, Product Line Manager at Thales. “This means all the different weapon systems working together. That’s the real breakthrough we’re working on.””

The need for this capability is growing for a number of reasons. In addition to defending national airspace, governments need to protect their forces in theatre. New doctrines of joint operations and collaborative combat rely on sharing resources. And the credibility of NATO’s integrated air defence capability depends on seamless cross-border collaboration.

Work is already underway on a solution to massively expand the integration of sensors and weapon systems. FCNet (fire control network) technology uses artificial intelligence and big data tools to adapt defence tactics, so threats can be defeated swiftly and effectively.

The increasing complexity of the landscape means commanders need the clearest picture possible – and they need to know all their options. So the next generation of command and control systems is being built around ergonomic human-computer interfaces to accelerate decision making. Rather than simply reacting to attacks, commanders will be able to anticipate them instead. As with all Thales’ solutions, it is cybersecured by design.

“Information quality is vital,” stresses Lesturgie. “We are working on several axes and developing algorithms to check the consistency of information.” The focus is on using wider sources of intelligence to enhance situational awareness. This includes analysis of social media ‘chatter’ – providing insights that could have high value for an air commander.

Digital technologies are key to maintaining tactical superiority and strategic independence. But with technology now so deeply embedded, isn’t there a risk that machines will end up making decisions themselves?

“Operators will have access to advanced technology that will help them to make better decisions, faster than ever,” says Dini. “However, the final decision – the decision to act, or not – will always be made by a human.”

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