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Against a rapidly evolving air defence picture, SkyKeeper has all threats covered​ (Studio)

26th July 2021 - 02:02 GMT | by Studio

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Evolving air defence requirements drove the development of Lockheed Martin UK's SkyKeeper BMC4I solution.

Today’s ground-based air defence (GBAD) systems face a highly complex battlespace, where they must integrate with sensors and effectors across multiple domains. Effective battle management command and control (C2) systems are crucial to meeting these demands – and exploiting the opportunities they present. 

In the West, GBAD was a relatively low priority in the decades after the end of the Cold War. However, the growing threat from “peer” and regional rivals has brought it back to centre-stage, said Richard Turner, Business Development Manager at Lockheed Martin UK.

This threat is visible on different levels. First, there are the “traditional” concerns over such platforms as fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft or cruise missiles.

‘They have not gone away, and they will not go away – ground-based air defence systems need to be mindful of these threats,’ Turner noted.

Nevertheless, the picture is now more complex than ever before, thanks to the proliferation of new threats like small unmanned aerial systems (UAS), which adversaries can use to provide kinetic effects or in an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) role. 

For two primary reasons, these are a challenge for GBAD, noted Ilker Aktasoglu, Shephard Media’s Defence Insight Manager.

First, traditional GBAD systems were designed to detect larger aircraft, which have a greater radar cross-section. Small UAVs naturally have a much smaller cross-section. What’s more, they have a low IR signature, ‘so radars and other systems can’t detect their heat or exhaust’.

To further complicate the picture, these small UAVs tend to be much closer to the ground, Aktasoglu noted, ‘so it’s really hard to separate them from natural obstacles like hills or trees’.

Second, this threat is continually expanding due to the rapid growth in UAS numbers, Aktasoglu added.

Air defence commanders make decisions based on data provided by sensors at different points of the operational theatre. The more airborne assets there are, the harder it is to differentiate which are adversaries and which are friendly aircraft.

Such issues are further complicated in a multinational operational environment, he noted, ‘because many nations are operating in the same airspace’.

To address these challenges, Lockheed Martin has identified the need for GBAD to be flexible and adaptable, Turner said. Such flexibility is even more critical in the multi-domain operations (MDO) battlespace, where air, land, sea, space and cyber assets must closely integrate to maximise effects.

‘Having a single capability at the centre, a digital backbone that can encompass and cover multiple domains, is clearly both operationally sensible and effective and efficient, but it also makes budgetary common sense,’ Turner said.

Such requirements drove the development of Lockheed Martin’s UK designed and developed SkyKeeper, a flexible and adaptable Battle Management Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (BMC4I) solution.

SkyKeeper can be integrated with any type of effector, kinetic or non-kinetic, from missiles to jammers. It has been a core part of the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD)’s Land Environment Air Picture Provision programme since 2014 and traces its heritage to the British Army’s Automated Sense and Warn (AS&W) system. 

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SkyKeeper addresses the complexity of the MDO battlespace by gathering the data from multiple sensors and effectors in one place, Turner noted. Operators can manage their sensors to ensure overlapping radar cover, for instance, or to manipulate their tactical responses in a coordinated way.

This approach means that operators can integrate a range of effectors into their broader system, selecting the best choice against a threat at a particular moment, ‘so being really efficient with the use of very precious resources’.

While SkyKeeper has a long association with the land domain, it is built for the digital age – and for MDO. The system ensures connectivity with air and maritime platforms, for instance, through tactical datalinks like Link 16 or Link 11.

Skykeeper can also connect effectively with the space domain, both in terms of space-based communications and using it to enhance the battlefield picture.

These capabilities are sewn together by a digital thread, which connects sensors and effectors across any domain. SkyKeeper is an essential GBAD C2 system – but it is much more than this, as Turner explained.

‘It can be in the battlefield, within different vehicles, within different headquarters, exchanging data among the key players on the battlefield, and providing that digital backbone for the warfighter.’

Interoperability among NATO nations and their allies is critical in the MDO battlespace, Turner noted. SkyKeeper can exploit sensor data from across Western systems, using messaging formats like the All-Purpose Structured Eurocontrol Surveillance Information Exchange (ASTERIX), along with tactical datalinks and other formats.

In this multinational environment, there will be a natural mix of new and legacy systems. SkyKeeper’s open architecture system has been purposefully designed to adapt to such bespoke needs and requirements – it’s what makes SkyKeeper the system of choice; ‘it can take in data from equipment that customers already have’, Turner noted. 

These capabilities may well remain ‘perfectly adequate for the task - with Skykeeper providing them with interoperability and interconnection, that increases their effectiveness’.

Such flexibility also means SkyKeeper can work with new technologies, as these are introduced to address any capability gaps.

In today’s battlespace, flexibility also brings operational dividends, Turner noted. SkyKeeper’s agnostic, “plug and play” approach means it can consume data from many different sensors and compile a common operating picture that ‘gives a single source of truth to the operator, who can be confident that what they’re seeing on screen is actually taking place in real-time within the battlespace’.

Additional software aids enable the operator to electronically interrogate these targets, identifying and classifying threats confidently.

While many nations reduced their emphasis on GBAD over recent decades, in more recent times there has been a clear shift in this, with many countries boosting their investments in the area. The global market is estimated to be worth up to $25 billion over the next ten years, Aktasoglu said.

‘It is growing in all regions,’ he said. ‘[Many countries] are developing advanced systems.’

Against this rapidly shifting backdrop, an adaptable, digital BMC4I system won’t just be helpful – it will be essential.

‘We know the threat will continually evolve,’ Turner said. ‘We will be able to bring new capabilities into SkyKeeper relatively easily, without disrupting a customer’s current network and current capability.

Turner said he had personally seen the capabilities embodied by SkyKeeper during his UK military career.

‘I think the exciting thing for me is being ex-military myself, seeing the SkyKeeper product being developed from capabilities that I saw and witnessed, and actually, in one instance, potentially saved my life, during my military career. And now having the privilege of working at Lockheed Martin with those individuals, technicians, and engineers who are designing this capability is quite awe-inspiring really.

‘In terms of taking that forward, providing that, not only for British troops to make and keep them safe, but also our allies, is a really important thing.’

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