by DAVID AXE
It can listen in on radio broadcasts and pinpoint their origins. Using powerful cameras and infrared sensors, it can lock onto people and vehicles miles away and track them with pinpoint accuracy.
It is a modified Gulfstream business jet that once belonged to the Jack Daniels whiskey-maker. Acquired by U.S. aerospace giant Lockheed Martin for $18 million, the 77-foot-wingspan plane now carries spy gear on behalf of government clients.
Known as the Airborne Multi-intelligence Laboratory, or AML, the aerial snoop can be rented by the year by governments too poor to own their own spy planes.
Italy’s, for instance. Cash-strapped Rome signed a two-year lease on the whiskey-jet-turned-surveiller in 2012. It’s not clear how much the lease costs, but it’s worth noting that Finland recently bought a similar set of aerial spy gear for $150 million.
By contrast, developing a spy plane from scratch can easily cost billions of dollars. “The AML is equipped with a full suite of collection systems as well as wideband and narrowband data-links,” according to Lockheed’s website. “Built-in on-board processing and analysis provide rapid data correlation.”
Renting reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft is a fairly new practice. It’s really taken off in Afghanistan, where air forces from more than a dozen nations are struggling to track elusive insurgents and can’t build their own spy planes fast enough — or can’t afford to at all.
Civilian-registered Gulfstreams and smaller, prop-driven King Airs can be seen at airfields across the war-torn country.
The mysterious aircraft, often painted to resemble normal business planes, are festooned with radio antennae and ball-shaped sensors — the most visible evidence of their secretive roles.
The rent-a-spy-plane business likely won’t end with the Afghanistan war. Italy planned to use its leased aerial snoop in all kinds of air operations, if one exercise was any indication.
In mid-May, 2013, at five airfields across Italy, the Italian Defense Ministry and some of Rome’s closest allies assembled fighters, tankers, helicopters, drones and support planes for a huge war game called Star Vega 2013. The leased AML, nicknamed “Dragon Star,” was a key player in the 11-day exercise. Dragon Star apparently helped spot simulated targets for Typhoon fighters and other warplanes.
As part of its two-year AML lease, Rome received access not only to the modified Gulfstream, but also to three ground stations for processing intelligence data plus flight crews and maintenance personnel for the plane.
The sensors and other systems installed on the Gulfstream could easily be fitted to other plane types. Finland is adding the AML kit to a C-295 propeller-driven cargo plane.
Besides choosing from a wide range of plane types, present and future customers for Lockheed’s rent-a-spy service can also select from a menu of sensors. “The AML is re-configurable so that we can tailor the system to meet specific customer needs,” Lockheed stated.
“An open software and hardware architecture permits rapid, affordable technology insertion,” the company continued. “Ample rack space and large, flexible, payload bays enable different equipment, sensors, processors and communications equipment to be rapidly exchanged.”
Photos provided by Lockheed depict the spacious interior of the AML’s rear cabin, fitted with four forward-facing banks of operator consoles—each bank featuring two large displays.
Equipment fitted to the AML at one time or another includes: infrared and daylight cameras built by FLIR Systems, L-3 wideband datalinks and unspecified new sensors built by DRS — most likely radio-signal receivers.
Combining all this hardware with the AML’s onboard processing could allow the plane to sense radio emissions from targets, zero in on them with cameras and then pass targeting information to strike aircraft.
And if you’ve got just $150 million lying around — not a huge sum for a government, really—you too can rent your own spy plane for hunting, and killing, your enemies.