The U.S. Air Force is planning yet another upgrade to Predatorunmanned aircraft, to make the missile-shooting, reconnaissance system a true, multi-intelligence collector.
The latest initiative would see the medium-altitude fitted with the ability to monitor radars. At the heart of the upgrade is the so called Airborne Signal Intelligence Payload, that is being designed as an integrated device to monitor radar and communications systems.
ASIPs is not a new program. The Air Force started work on the sigint system in 1999, with the high-flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft named as the platform to carry the device. Critical design review for that version took place in 2005. The receivers are being mounted in the two distinctive underwing pods the U-2 can be seen carrying.
Later, the Air Force decided to also install the Northrop Grumman-developed ASIP on the Global Hawk high-altitude endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, made by the same company. Global Hawk is the nominal replacement for the U-2, so adding ASIP to the drone was logical. The signals intelligence capability will build on a more rudimentary radar monitoring system already flown on the UAV.
Barring delays, ASIP should be part of the so called Block 30 upgrade to Global Hawk, and be fielded in 2008. First flight is supposed to take place this year with both the high-band (radar intercept) and low-band (communications) subsystems. The radar portion has already been flown on Global Hawk. But now, the service is contemplating shifting ASIP also to the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator and its related MQ-9 Reaper UAVs. Initial work will focus on sorting out what the hurdles might be to add the sigint subsystem to the Predator family. Issues could include power supply and antenna separation. Also unclear is whether a Predator could carry both high-band and low-band elements at the same time — on the U-2, it takes at least seven electronic boxes, not counting the receivers. No timeline, exists, yet, for fielding of the capability.