The first known photo has surfaced of Australia’s newest intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare aircraft, a highly modified version of the Gulfstream G550 business jet, as is seen at the top of this story.
The aircraft, dubbed the MC-55A Peregrine by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), was spotted flying from Gulfstream's plant in Savannah, Georgia. Photographer Aaron Perlupo, who can be found on Instagram at @aarons_airplanes, was kind enough to share his image of the aircraft with The War Zone.
The airframe, configured with what have been described as "airborne intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and electronic warfare" (AISREW) mission systems, bristles with antennas and has a recognizable belly “canoe” that contains additional sensors. A distinct green color on the aircraft fuselage shows that it is not complete or, at the very least, it is not yet painted in its final color.
The RAAF has plans to buy as many as five of the aircraft, although reports state that four aircraft are now planned. There is no indication of when the Australians will take delivery of the new jet, although this year was originally the plan. As with most military aircraft, renderings of the finished jet show it in a flat gray livery.
The aircraft tail number N540GA shows it belongs to the U.S. Air Force with an address at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which is likely because the aircraft are procured through a foreign military sales (FMS) program administered by the Air Force. The 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, nicknamed the Big Safari, based at Wright Patterson, regularly manages special missions FMS programs like the MC-55A.
Notable features of Australia’s unique configuration seen in the photo include a dorsally mounted satellite communications antenna farm and a large satcom antenna fairing on the top of the vertical stabilizer. Australia’s MC-55A does not sport the cheek fairings housing active electronically scanned array radars that are a staple on the conformal early warning (CAEW) versions of the G550 that Italy, Singapore, and Israel fly. Those included on the U.S. Navy’s NC-37B range tracking jet and the Air Force's upcoming EC-37B Compass Call aircraft, both of which are also based on the G550.
Australia's jet features a bulbous tail cone housing very similar to what is seen on the CAEW, and what looks like an integrated electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) turret below the tail, although that could also be another dome with some sort of emitter inside. On the bottom of the jet, we see a tell-tale antenna farm that is used for electronic and communications intelligence-gathering and communications relay work.
It is not known for certain what capabilities Australia's MC-55A will have, but based on the name and equipment seen on the aircraft, it is likely to perform some combination of electronic warfare (EW), signals intelligence (SIGINT), and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. We can also expect it to be capable of working as a networking relay and data-fusion platform that will tie other RAAF aircraft and ships together digitally.
That mission profile meshes with Australia's broad efforts to boost its EW and ISR capabilities through a comprehensive modernization plan you can read more about in this past War Zone feature. Simply put, the RAAF is becoming one of the most capable air arms when it comes to dominating the RF realm.
The electronic attack portion of the MC-55A's mission is most intriguing. It would be fair to postulate that the type borrowed the rear AESA array from the CAEW and added a powerful AESA type in the canoe, offering the ability to execute electronic attacks at standoff ranges, as well as gather intelligence. It isn't clear at this time what the Peregrine's ground mapping and ground-moving target indication (GMTI) functions are, or if it is capable of gathering this intelligence at all. If indeed it features AESA arrays in its canoe and tail, it would make sense that it would have at least a latent capability in this regard.
It is also possible that this aircraft is a passive intelligence collection component of a larger electronic warfare ecosystem and does not have AESAs or other active electronic warfare emitters. Still, the inclusion of the CAEW tail and the large ventral canoe makes this possibility a bit less than probable.
There is nothing in the U.S. fleet that encompasses so many roles as the MC-55A. Instead, these functions are broken up among a variety of platforms. Miniaturization of components and the advent of powerful AESA arrays, as well as the ability to push data off the collecting platform via high-bandwidth satellite datalink in near real-time for dissemination, have clearly allowed an aircraft like the MC-55A to become a reality. It will be interesting to see if other allied nations pursue a similar configuration.
The Air Force's upcoming EC-37B is probably the closest analog to the MC-55A that will be in U.S. service. Compass Call equipment installed on USAF EC-130H aircraft already performs both electronic intelligence gathering and electronic warfare missions. Those aircraft are being replaced with the modified CAEW version of the Gulfstream G550, the aforementioned EC-37B. But this aircraft has a far more focused mission than the MC-55A.
Still, there is a direct connection of sorts between the U.S. Air Force and RAAF versions of the G550. L3Harris Technologies is responsible for the integration of EW technologies and other systems in both airframes at its facility in Greenville, Texas. BAE Systems also is responsible for some electronics and mission equipment on the EC-37B.
A capable aircraft in its own right, the G550 can stay aloft for 15 hours and cruise at about 600 miles per hour with a service ceiling of 51,000 feet. That should allow its sensors to perform communications and signals intelligence interception, as well as any potential electronic attacks and radar tracking, at a range of about 400 kilometers.
The U.S. State Department gave its approval to Australia in 2017 to purchase up to five of the modified jets, their specialized systems, and lifetime end-to-end support, including training, ground control interfaces, and other infrastructure and services. The whole deal is said to cost $1.3 billion.
"The Peregrine is a new airborne electronic warfare capability that will be integrated into Defence's joint warfighting networks, providing a critical link between platforms, including the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, E-7A Wedgetail, EA-18G Growler, Navy’s surface combatants, and amphibious assault ships and ground assets to support the warfighter,” then-Australian Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said in a 2019 statement announcing the deal for four MC-55As.
Plans are to base the Peregrin aircraft at RAAF Base Edinburgh on the coast of South Australia, where the country is headquartering much of its maritime surveillance capabilities, including the P-8A Poseidon, MQ-4C Triton high-altitude long-endurance drones, and its MQ-9 Reaper fleet.
"This capability and the people who operate it will bring Air Force closer to becoming a fully networked fifth-generation force and further exploit the joint combat multiplier effects on exercises and operations," Pyne said.
Pyne and then Minister for Defence Industry Senator Linda Reynolds announced the acquisition of the aircraft in a March 18 joint statement which confirmed the plane would be based at RAAF Edinburgh near Adelaide, the home base of RAAF Surveillance & Response Group (SRG).
Short of conflict, Australia, the U.S. and allies are investing heavily in technologies that can keep a persistent eye on Chinese activity in the Pacific. Some of those capabilities, like Australia's P-8s and the U.S. RC-135V/W Rivet Joint spy planes, have been flying up against Chinese forces in the region for years. They are also being employed to surveil Chinese military expansion and activities in the Pacific and elsewhere. These platforms and others are highly important as they can build up a picture of China's electronic order of battle at any given time.
Aside from the MC-55 aircraft, the RAAF has also fielded the EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft. When you add these two airframes to Australia's fleet of F/A-18 Super Hornets, F-35As — which are capable of electronic attack and electronic intelligence collection platforms in their own right — as well as P-8 Poseidons, MQ-4C Tritons, and future loyal wingman drones that can carry their own electronic warfare packages, the RAAF is clearly positioning itself as one of the most electronically aware and combat-capable air arms on the planet.
UPDATE: 8:20 PM EST—
After we published this story, it was brought to our attention that N540GA had been previously photographed in March and in April by a different photographer, with the handle @kmge_spotter on Instagram.
Contact the author: Dan@thewarzone.com and Tyler@thedrive.com