A recent bombing attack on an arms factory in Sudan may point to an Israeli electronic warfare capability that allows non-stealthy aircraft to avoid being targeted by radar.
The president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, has declared that he will launch a “painful” retaliation on his “Zionist enemy” for a bombing attack that used what he called superior, radar-evading aircraft technology. Israel has not acknowledged the attack on a Khartoum arms factory that shipped weapons to Hamas-controlled Gaza and the lawless Sinai peninsula that is home to many stateless insurgent groups.
Even so, since Israel does not have stealth aircraft and since Sudan’s air defense failed to detect or stop the raid, what is the president referring to?
There has been an unverified, unsourced report in the The Times of London that says the air package included eightoptimized for bombing, two CH-53 helicopters for combat search and rescue, a tanker to make the long-range strike possible and a special missions aircraft.
U.S. and Israeli officials say that the formation sounds right for a long-range attack. Four of the F-15Is would serve as spares and would orbit offshore with the tanker. Four F-15Is could carry enough bombs to destroy the target. Sudanese military officials say they spotted four aircraft leaving the area. Since the mission started shortly after midnight, it would mean the Sudanese got at least a fleeting, non-targetable, radar picture of the exiting strike aircraft. The two CH-53s were pre-positioned on the ground somewhere in the region close to the target.
The mystery ingredient in the strike force, if its composition was as reported, was most likely an’ Gulfstream G550 modified as a special electronics mission aircraft (SEMA). The (IAF) has three of the aircraft operational.
Well before the attack in the Sudan, Aviation Week talked to an IAI specialist about the unclassified capabilities of SEMA, which is a product the company markets in four families that include air-to-air surveillance, airborne early warning and control, air-to-ground surveillance and maritime surveillance and control.
The aircraft design is a template that is now being adopted by many air forces. It features a business jet, carrying new miniaturized electronics and advanced antennas, that is operationally more efficient than the classic 707 airframe that has long been the standard for intelligence-gathering aircraft.
“The IAF asked if we could make it smaller, cheaper and that required less power and cooling,” says Gideon Landa, general manager of Elta’s airborne systems and radars division. “The G550 became available and Elta made a sensor that was compact enough to fit in it.”
The aircraft has electronic- and communications-intelligence gathering packages and advanced communications. It is also a command-and-control post that can conduct strike and intelligence-gathering missions far from Israel.
“We can disconnect from Israel, fly to [the Pacific region], and do cooperative work with [other nations],” Landa points out.
Monitoring Sudan’s air defenses and military command and control communications would be a far less demanding mission. The SEMA offers advantages that the 707 family was never able to provide to either Israeli or U.S. intelligence operations — speed, altitude (for a better electronic horizon), unrefueled range and long-range, hard-to-intercept communications. The aircraft’s operational altitude is about 45,000 ft. and the radar and sigint horizon is about 250 mi. However, that range is conservative and probably limited only by the curvature of the Earth.
“If you are monitoring [a target] from 200 nautical miles away, you don’t have to use self-protection,” Landa says. “If you want more detail from the battlefield, you can use unmanned aircraft carrying surveillance payloads.”
However, because of the advanced sensors on board and the expanded data processing power, much of the detailed information is quickly available on the special mission aircraft.
Nonetheless, for a number reasons, including “the advanced communications on board, we are operating most of the systems from the ground,” Landa says. “So we can carry more equipment and 10 to 12 signals intelligence and command-and-control guys. At the same time it can be used by up to 30 operators from the ground.” By carrying fewer crewmen and more fuel, the aircraft will have more time on stations — up to 10 hr. unrefueled.
So the special mission aircraft can listen to what the enemy is doing and if the there is any hint the aircraft has been detected. But is there an active component or an electronic attack capability?
SEMA does not carry an electronic warfare suite. Those functions are carried out by other platforms, although ELTA does offer a portfolio of electronic warfare systems.
The aircraft is instead designed “to deceive, confuse and interrupt, but not violently,” Landa says. “We make the enemy system useless. It is contrary to high-power microwave or electro-magnetic pulse [anti-electronics weaponry], which damages electronics. We are not there. We don’t want to be there.”
[Editor’s Note: This article was amended to clarify the timing of Aviation Week’s interview with IAI.]