Aircraft Manufacturers have a proven history of converting commercial airliners into military aircraft. This started during World War II where aircraft like the Douglas DC-3 airliner was converted to a C-47 Cargo transport and later on as an AC-47 ‘Gunship’ and EC-47 Electronic Warfare. Another well known example is the Boeing 707 airliner into the E-3 Sentry AWACS and KC-135 Airborne Tanker used by the USAF.
Over the past decade, there has been a growing military interest in a distinct sector of civilian aviation, namely business aviation.
This leads to a rising aviation security concern in the Misidentification of Business Aircraft perceived as a Military aircraft. Traditionally the Business Aviation aircraft were mainly used by the military for VIP transport, but along the way some types have been modified for Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, Electronic Warfare, Special Operations Support, etc.. Additionally, unlike bespoke military aircraft, modified business aircraft have two other advantages: a global pool of spare parts and an extremely high dependability in comparison to military aircraft.
With the current number of conflicts growing world wide, more and more business aircraft are being used by the military. Especially in the Middle-East, Black Sea, Baltic States and around Taiwan. The risk of Misidentification is growing rapidly.
There are also companies that support the military through Contractor Owned, Contractor Operated (COCO) Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance (ISR) operations in support of DoD entities and USG agencies. An example of this is the United States Special Operations Command (USOCOM) that uses subcontractors that operate a fleet of COCO ISR aircraft like the Bombardier Challenger 605 and the Challenger 650 Aerial Reconnaissance and Targeting Exploitation Multi-Mission Intelligence System (ARTEMIS). These aircraft are flying regular missions along the Poland-Belarus border to monitor Russian ground force activities. As well as in the Indo-Pacific theater in support of U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC).
The Bombardier Challenger 650 technology demonstrator is outfitted with the ARTEMIS multi-sensor surveillance suite. (Photo: via U.S. Army)
Such are the similarities between some military and corporate jets, it is not always easy to tell them apart. Some examples;
Civil type Military type Mission role
Gulfstream G550 EC-37B Compass Call Electronic Warfare C-37 A/ B VIP / Special Air Mission Bombardier Global Express 6000 E-11 BACN Battlefield Airborne
Bombardier Challenger 605 Challenger 605 ARTEMIS intelligence, surveillance, and
Learjet 35A C-21 pax and cargo airlifts.
Dassault 900LX Envoy IV CC Mk1 VIP transport by the RAF
(The Global 6000 /E-11 BACN ,Battlefield Airborne Communications Node USAF photo)
Misidentifying a business aircraft as a military aircraft can have serious consequences, as it may lead to harassment by hostile actors in international airspace, intercepts and potential shootdown, confusion, or even security concerns. Here are some potential reasons for such misidentifications and steps to prevent them:
Reasons for Misidentification:
Some business jets may have a similar appearance to certain military aircraft, especially if they share design features or are painted in similar colors. More and more COCO ‘Business’ aircraft are being used and flown near airways operated by the regular business aircraft. The radar signature as well as the exterior look alike, the flight profiles differ as these often fly large holding patterns or ‘zig-zag’ patterns.
Lack of Information:
Limited or unclear information about the aircraft, especially in situations where radar or other identification systems may not provide detailed data.
Miscommunication or lack of communication between air traffic control (ATC) and military authorities. Or between ATC and the Business aircraft. Another scenario is that a Business Aircraft experiences an enroute problem for which it enters a holding to troubleshoot the situation. If this is not properly coordinated with ATC, the holding pattern of the business aircraft can look similar to the operational flight condition of a ‘military’ aircraft that often flies holding patterns when conducting their mission.
Flight plan / Flight plan deviation
Due to GPS Spoofing or navigational equipment failure. Use of similar flight numbers with multiple digits, which change with each landing and take-off made in the course of a day, will likely continue to cause flight number designation errors by both pilots and controllers. In selected circumstances, this could lead to misidentification of aircraft.
What happens when you get intercepted by a military aircraft?
Most military forces have a standard intercept protocol. Air Defense Sectors monitor air traffic and could order an intercept in the interest of national security or defense. Intercepts during peacetime operations are vastly different from those conducted under increased states of readiness. The interceptors may be fighters or rotary wing aircraft. The reasons for aircraft intercept include;
Identify an aircraft;
Track an aircraft;
Inspect an aircraft;
Divert an aircraft;
Establish communications with an aircraft.
As a standard protocol, intercepted aircraft are usually approached from behind. While it is common for interceptor aircraft to operate in pairs, there are instances where a single aircraft may carry out the intercept operation. The intercepting aircraft bears the responsibility for ensuring a safe separation between itself and the intercepted aircraft, and this separation will be diligently maintained throughout the operation.
Interceptor aircraft will commence a controlled approach toward the target aircraft, maintaining a distance no closer than deemed necessary for positive identification and the collection of essential information. Additionally, the interceptor may conduct a flyby of the intercepted aircraft while obtaining data at a distance considered safe, taking into account the performance characteristics of both aircraft.
Post Intercept Phase
An interceptor may make efforts to establish communication using standard ICAO signals (ICAO Annex 2; Rules of the Air). In situations where time is critical and an immediate response is required from the intercepted aircraft, or if the intercepted aircraft remains non-compliant with instructions, the interceptor pilot may initiate a divert maneuver. During this maneuver, the interceptor will fly across the flight path of the intercepted aircraft, maintaining a minimum separation of 500 feet and starting slightly below the intercepted aircraft's altitude, in the anticipated direction of the intercepted aircraft's turn. While crossing the flight path, the interceptor will rock its wings (during daytime) or flash external lights/select afterburners (at night). Following this, the interceptor will roll out in the expected direction of the intercepted aircraft's turn before returning to confirm compliance.
The intercepted aircraft is expected to execute an immediate turn toward the intercepting aircraft. If the aircraft of interest fails to comply, the interceptor may conduct a second climbing turn across the intercepted aircraft's flight path, again maintaining a minimum separation of 500 feet and starting slightly below the intercepted aircraft's altitude. During this maneuver, flares may be deployed as a warning signal for the intercepted aircraft to comply immediately, turn in the indicated direction, and leave the area. The interceptor is responsible for ensuring safe separation during all intercept maneuvers, with a paramount focus on flight safety.
Perform a Risk Assessment concerning the planned flight route prior to the flight, related to overflight risk, conflict zone update, military exercises in the area of your planned route. Therefore monitor airport and airspace-specific notices, bulletins, circulars, advisories, prohibitions and restrictions prior to departure. Check if the departure and destination airport are also (frequently) used by COCO aircraft.
Enhance communication protocols between ATC and military authorities to ensure accurate information exchange and identification of aircraft. In the event of a communication failure make sure to follow the correct ‘loss of communication’ procedures. That the correct transponder code and flight ID is set.
Make sure that the flight crew and operations crew are trained on a recurrent basis Security Awareness, ‘how do I look to the outside world’ and training to maintain familiarity with the preventive procedures as well as the loss com procedures. These can consist of the company SOP’s, aircraft manufacturing procedures and ICAO Annex 2; Rules of the Air.
Confirm the identity and authority of the passengers (high profile ‘target’ passengers for the countries the flight will overfly) reroute the flight plan when required.