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Theater Airborne Warning System (TAWS)

Working with Textron and Aerojet, in 1997 researchers developed a technically elegant scheme to combine infrared data from the Defense Support Program (DSP) early warning satellite constellation with more rapidly updated information from Cobra Ball's medium wave infrared array (MIRA) sensors. Called the Theater Airborne Warning System (TAWS) program, the system fuses data from aircraft, satellites and other intelligence sources to locate enemy missile launches for a quick attack on the transporter, reloading site, and perhaps the missile supply facility.

Fusing MIRA and DSP data can cut the satellite's ellipse error, and plot target locations to within less than a mile. Airborne infrared observations are made much more often than the DSP satellite, thereby allowing a more accurate determination of the point at which the missile's engine cuts off, a key data point for predicting the impact point.

TAWS was initially deployed on the Cobra Ball RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft.

The FY1998 budget request contained $67.1 million for defense airborne reconnaissance program modifications, but did not contain funding for TAWS. In the statement of the Defense Authorization managers accompanying the conference report on H.R. 3230 (H. Rept. 104-724), the conferees urged the Air Force to proceed with a program to install TAWS on the Rivet Joint RC-135 aircraft, which is available in greater numbers than the Cobra Ball. Such a program would provide an option for early deployment of TAWS in support of improved theater ballistic missile defenses. However, the Department had opted instead to install this capability on the Airborne Laser (ABL). The long intervening period during which TAWS would remain only on the very few Cobra Ball aircraft would not meet the near-term need for a theater ballistic missile analysis and warning capability. Furthermore, the Air Force plans to acquire no more than seven ABL aircraft, a force structure too small to assure that TAWS would be available when and where needed. The House National Security Committee recommended an increase of $20.0 million to migrate the MWIR TAWS technology from the Cobra Ball RC-135 to the Rivet Joint RC-135 to enhance near-term deployment flexibility.

In late 1997 the promise of congressional funding resuscitated the Air Force's plan to pursue equipping Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft with the Theater Airborne Warning system--an effort DoD officials canceled earlier this year. Known as the Rivet Joint Technology Transfer, the project migrated an improved medium-wave infrared array sensor from Cobra Ball to Rivet Joint and fuse the MIRA sensor with data from the space-based Defense Support Program. But lack of funding held up installation of the capability on additional aircraft.

As of late 2002 TAWS was in the process of being installed on the two most recently upgraded RC-135V/W Rivet Joint aircraft that in the past had been dedicated solely to signals intelligence gathering. These became operational in December 2002.



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