"Big Iron" for the Army?

An inter-service battle over aviation is brewing and the likely outcome is unclear.

Traditionally, the US Air Force has flown the heaviest aircraft of the US inventory, including the C-5A and B-52. The US Navy has occupied the middle of the weight spectrum, having to compromise for sea operations aircraft size and weight with the limitations imposed by operating from an aircraft carrier. The results are aircraft like the F-18, EA-6B, and E-2C. The US Army’s aviation is overwhelmingly comprised of rotary-wing assets, with a small collection of fixed-wing aircraft, the largest of which are its few C-20/Gulfstream aircraft whose ramp weight is just under 42,000 pounds. A new, larger logistics aircraft similar to a C-27J Spartan twin turboprop transport or a C-130 Hercules medium tactical transport aircraft is under consideration for the Army as soon as FY 2008, although this reporter doubts it will happen. The Army’s current (and to be replaced) RC-12N Guardrail airplane (a Beech King Air variant) weighs-in at just 16,000 pounds. The Army is replacing both the RC-12 Guardrail Common Sensor and RC-7 Airborne Reconnaissance - Low aircraft.

Greatly complicating this picture is the rapid development of unmanned aircraft which are going to very soon replace a number of manned aircraft (to the dismay of military aircrews). UAVs offer the casualty-adverse American public and Congress a way to accomplish dangerous missions without the chance of aircrew loss and at a lower cost. This gift is already resulting in a blurring of what were relatively well defined lines between the services’ aviation components. The Navy is completing tests of several UAVs; the X-45/47 is a fixed-wing aircraft while the Firescout is an unmanned helicopter. Both are being tested for operations aboard an aircraft carrier, and so far, so good. The Army has been using UAVs with great success in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Air Force, too, is finding that UAVs controlled by pilots sitting in a control room thousands of miles away is both cost effective and tactically successful, although the Air Force looks on at these successes with a mixture of apprehension and distaste.

Recently, the Air Force has demanded that it be the provider and final authority for US UAV deployment and use. This reported doubts such a demand will be successful. As personal computers distributed computing power far beyond the control of what had been a central information technology staff, UAVs are sure to so decentralize military aviation that control of them by one service will be impossible.

One of the services’ major new programs is the P-8A/Multimission Maritime Aircraft. After a shake-out among several manufacturers, the DOD chose a Boeing 737 variant to meet the Navy’s requirement for a replacement for the P-3C anti-submarine warfare patrol airplane and the EP-3E Spook Bird, which spends its time performing electronic intelligence duties. Along the way the EP-3E variant was dropped as being too large and too expensive. Instead, both the Army and the Navy decided upon a smaller aircraft, the ERJ-145. But when the trons started investigating packing the needed spook gear and crew into the 145, it became apparent that the 145 fell short. As development proceeded, it became clear that it is not large enough nor does it have the capability to carry enough fuel for a typical Navy ISR long-range mission. As the design of the mission equipment progressed, it became apparent that the -145 could not provide needed airframe size and electrical power, and that larger engines and greater cooling capacities would be needed.

Until recently, the Army had planned to cut by $2 billion its planned program spending for FY07 – FY11, from $3.4 billion to $1.4 billion. The Army said about $200 million of the savings would be used to upgrade two existing Army reconnaissance planes instead.

The Army had awarded Lockheed an $879 million contract in August, 2004, to develop the first phase of the Aerial Common Sensor project. The original plan was to produce up to 38 planes for the Army and up to 19 planes for the Navy for a potential contract value of $7 billion to $10 billion over 20 years. But swiftly changing budgets and events have beached this plan. With the current program problems, fielding significant numbers of ACS aircraft may not occur until FY17.

With the cancellation of the ERJ-145 SIGINT airplane, the Army is reportedly considering the P-8A SIGINT Variant. The Army’s cancellation of its contract for the Aerial Common Sensor ERJ-145 replacement was followed just two weeks later by Boeing announcing a proposed SIGINT P-8A variant. For the Navy this is a far easier decision, since it has given the go ahead to replace its P-3C fleet with the P-8A.

As Yogi Berra might have said, “It’s déjà vu all over again!” since Boeing had originally proposed an MMA variant to be the new SIGINT airplane for the Navy. Neither the Navy nor the Army has yet officially responded to this proposal.

In January, 2006, the US Army’s Program Executive for Electronic Warfare and Sensors that unmanned aircraft such as the Shadow, the Extended Range Multi-Purpose Platform, the Predator, and the Global Hawk may assume many of the duties of the ACS and Guardrail manned aircraft. This would, of course, again substantially change a manned aircraft replacement picture. This, in turn, makes even more uncertain the future of the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) Program, which would create UAVs to enhance the P-8’s surveillance (and perhaps also attack) capabilities. Originally, the 50 planned BAMS UAVs were to be controlled from land or from aboard a P-8 on low-level missions. Now, who knows?

Which brings us back to the line drawn between Air Force-Army-Navy aviation. If a P-8 variant does indeed come to be the new Army/Navy ISR aircraft, Army pilots will be flying an aircraft four times larger than anything now in the inventory – even larger that the 72,000 pound AP-2E Neptune attack variant the Army “Black Cats” inherited from the Navy and then flew in Vietnam. This reporter expects fierce opposition from the Air Force to the prospect of the Army flying “big iron” amid a tumultuous time of UAVS and UCAVS quickly assuming many manned aviation duties. Indeed, as UAVs and newer platforms proliferate, the USAF may find its ownership of the air among US services seriously in doubt.

40 years ago the Army flew the ex-Navy AP-2H

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