2008/11/14

Next decade: Supersonic business jets

There are some supersonic business jets in the pipeline, and I expect at least one project to reach production status in the next decade.
This has some relevance for the realm of military affairs, just like traditional and ultra-long range business jets have.

The affordable and fast business jets are a classic platform for signals intelligence (Sigint). Such aircraft have been used since decades for electronic sniffing; they recorded electromagnetic emissions of (potential) opponents to learn about the others' radio/radar technologies and/or communications. Large aircraft like RC-135 are usually not necessary for this and almost every state with an electronics industry with military products has its own small or large Sigint aircraft fleet.

Such passive means of intelligence gathering aren't the only ones in this context, though. Aerial ground surveillance radars can be used on such small aircraft as well. The most well-known such aircraft is today the E-8 JSTARS, but the much older Mohawk and the HORIZON system show that such a large platform is unnecessary. The UK's Royal Air Force actually mounts its new ASTOR system on a ultra-long range business jet (Raytheon Sentinel system).

Airborne Early Warning & Control systems can be based on business jet-sized platforms as well, as demonstrated by carrier-borne AEW systems, the Swedish Erieye radar that's usually being mounted on very small airliners and the very modern Israeli Eitam (CAEW) system.

What could supersonic cruise - especially supercruise - add to these applications?

Well, it's in my opinion all about survivability. Such systems (especially the AEW&C systems that are important assets in air warfare) are among the highest priority targets in a conventional war. An inferior air force cannot really hope to destroy such planes in sufficient quantity with normal fighters, but agents/commandos that raid the airfields, dedicated very long-range air-to-air missiles and very long range surface-to-air missiles threaten clumsy subsonic aircraft like RC-135, E-8 and E-3. The range of such missiles is about the same as the range of the aerial radars, which means that such aircraft might be pushed back and maybe couldn't sense deep into 'enemy' terrain.

A supersonic aircraft is a much more challenging target - and the smaller size (with possibly a bit RCS reduction) lends itself well to successful jamming of tiny active radars in missile heads.

Survivability is the reason why supercruise business jets might become the basis for the next generation of SigInt, AEW and radar ground surveillance radar aircraft.
I don't expect this to happen soon, though. The procurement cycle might require a new generation of such systems only in twenty or more years because most air forces that might accept small aircraft as platforms (this seems to exclude the USAF) have equipped themselves with such planes quite recently.

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