Replacement Aerial Common Sensor Aircraft Will Be a UAV

12 September 2007

In September, 2007, Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the U.S. Army's RC-12 Guardrail aircraft fleet, was awarded a $462 million Guardrail Modernization system integration contract to continue upgrading and enhancing the system, which had, until recently, been slated to be replaced in the next several years. The Guardrail system provides precision targeting, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance using the RC-12 aircraft. The RC-12 was to have been replaced by, first, a variant of the Navy’s in-development P-8 (a replacement for the P-3C and EP-3E), and then by a highly-modified Embrauer ERJ-145. The electronic version of the P-8 was dropped as too expensive and too far out, and the ERJ-145 was dropped after engineers admitted that its systems were insufficient to provide the required electrical load of a “spook” bird.

The award coincides with Northrop’s completion of a program of simulations, demonstrations and tests to satisfy the DOD that its involvement with BAMS could provide low programmatic and technical risk.

The RC-12 is a variant of the Hawker-Beechcraft King Air B200 and is one of the three electronic eavesdropping and surveillance planes that were for replacement by the joint Army-Navy Aerial Common Sensor (ACS) aircraft. With the ever greater uncertainty surrounding a successor follow-on manned aircraft, the current system is being extended with the new contract.

It seems clear that the saga of ACS is ever more closely linked to that of the Navy’s P-8 and BAMS (Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program), an unmanned aircraft that is intended to help the new P-8s (the Navy states that 108 will be built; this reporter believes the number will be closer to 60; the original number was 251) in their surveillance role. On paper, 40 BAMS UAVs (down from the estimated 50 of several years ago) will help extend the ISR range of the P-8. BAMS is envisioned as being operated from land, from aboard an airborne P-8, and autonomously using onboard computing and satlinks. The current favorite being tested in this role of the PREDATOR-B (“Mariner”). BAMS is now envisioned as being based at five US Navy sites located at Hawaii, Diego Garcia, Florida, Japan and Italy. Current plans call for BAMS to be fully operational by 2013 to coincide with the first volume deliveries of the P-8A to the fleet. However, still in the running are the Gulfstream RQ-37 (the 550G bizjet) and the RQ-4A Global Hawk.

All this leads one to the conclusion that the new ACS aircraft will be unmanned. Unmanned aircraft – combat and non-combat – are coming on fast. Unmanned rotary-wing aircraft have been successfully launched and recovered from Navy carriers and are about to become operational. Unofficial word is that this technology can also manage fixed-wing carrier operations and that the main drawback in such testing is institutional resistance. The Air Force routinely flies UAVs in combat areas while being controlled by people sitting in windowless offices in the States (again despite the anguish of aircrews). The Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship class (LCS-1) is being built with the capability of launching and recovering and directing unmanned aircraft, submersibles, and surface craft. With the Navy already well on the way to fielding a BAMS UAV as part of its Persistent Unmanned Aircraft Program, the suitability of such aircraft for use as an ACS aircraft is apparent. Technology is outstripping the ability to plan more than a year or two in advance while new manned aircraft programs typically take 10-15 years from inception to initially being fielded. In June, 2007, Boeing and Raytheon made a surprise joint entry into the BAMS contest by proposing the use of High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) blimps to carry the latest synthetic aperture radar and other sensors for weeks or months at a time high over a battlefield or ocean station. While blimps – manned or unmanned -- are not fast or sexy, with current technology, they, too, are competitive in some tactical situations.

Look for the new ACS aircraft to be unmanned, as will an ever increasing number of other military aircraft.

Predator-B

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