Flight to Unmanned Vehicles Continues to Cloud Future of Military Aircraft


10 February 2008

The US military’s rush to unmanned vehicles has thoroughly clouded current plans to build manned vehicles. Nowhere is this seen more vividly than in the DOD’s plans for aircraft.

Because the cost of building new aircraft has been increasing geometrically now for years, what had been the military’s 10-15 year time line from concept to fielding new aircraft has become hopelessly outdated. This, combined with the “rule of 18” is making such planning impossible (The Rule of 18 states that the capability of any existing computer technology doubles every 18 months as the computer industry pushes ever farther ahead. Thus, a traditionally manned military platform or system may be hopelessly outdated long before it reaches the front lines). Add the wear experienced by existing systems from the punishment of six years of war to a procurement system essentially unchanged for 30 years and you have a process which no longer works. This failure was seen earlier in 2007 with the sudden, quiet removal of several top DOD acquisition officials. Congress is demanding an updated, better acquisition system but hasn’t a clue how to achieve this goal. So, typically, Congress has a temper tantrum and the military suffers.

In December, 2007, the US Navy suddenly grounded 39 of its remaining 161 P-3C aircraft (down from 288 as recently as 2005) due to structural fatigue concerns. Officials determined that these aircraft are beyond known design structural limits and are expected to take up to two years to repair (if they are indeed repairable).

This further deterioration of the VP fleet comes as the Navy scrambles to get the follow-on P-8A into service. On December 11, 2007, NAVAIR marked the beginning of the P-8A production at a ceremony hosted by Spirit AeroSystems, Wichita, KS. The first P-8A fuselage component – derived from the Boeing 737-800 -- was loaded into a holding fixture on the factory floor during the ceremony. attended by Navy program leadership, Spirit employees and representatives from Boeing Commercial Airplanes and Boeing Integrated Defense Systems. However, since the first squadron of P-8s is not expected to become fully operational until 2014 at the earliest, P-8A development continues but remains uncertain.

In 2001 the US Navy decided to build 251 P-8s and 50 UAVs under the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance Program (BAMS), the P-8s to replace both the P-3C and EP-3E. BAMS was to spend part of each flight being remotely controlled by a P-8 or other suitable command aircraft. Since then, the Navy dropped the target number of P-8s to 151 and then to 108 (further reduction in numbers is likely as the cost of the land-based war on terror continues to suck the JP out of the rest of the defense budget). In late 2003 the Navy identified the Predator B-ER variant called “Mariner” to be the BAMS aircraft. Boeing and Lockheed were the two major competitors for the P-8 contract. Boeing won, in part, because it barnstormed its modified 737-800 around the world, letting Navy fliers try it out, and because it promised to begin deliveries a year early, in 2011, while Lockheed’s response was a lackluster “conceptual drawing.” The 12 active patrol squadrons (down from 24 active and 13 reserve VP squadrons in 1991) officially operated 163 P-3Cs as of January 2007, with several dozen of those already in various stages of major life extension repair.

There were to have been two MMA variants: a Search and Attack (SA) aircraft to replace the P-3C and a Surveillance and Intel (SI) airplane to replace the EP-3E. The MMA variant to have replaced the EP-3E was scrubbed, as was subsequently the new joint Army-Navy aircraft, a modified Embrauer-145, to have replaced the US Army’s Guardrail RC-12 and serve both services. Redefining the urgency of the MMA Program, the Navy has nearly completed the decommissioning all of what were its seven Reserve P-3 squadrons as the number of serviceable P-3Cs shrinks each year. And as noted earlier here, this reporter believes the EP-3 replacement will be a UAV rather than a manned aircraft.

A Lockheed Martin spokesperson said earlier this year that until the P-8 comes on line the Navy and Lockheed Martin are working the ASW Maritime Improvement Program (AMIP), consisting of three critical elements: ASW Processing, Networked Communications, and Mission System Sustainment. NAVAIR affirmed that the P-3C current mission systems modernized programs include installation of an upgraded communications suite and Required Navigation Performance Area Navigation. The USQ-78(V) Upgrade Program is improving the USQ-78(V) Single Advanced Signal Processor system Display Control Unit, a programmable system control processor provides post processing of acoustic data and is the main component of the Update III acoustic configuration. Up to 100 P-3C aircraft are being upgraded to USQ-78B configuration with System Controller (SC) and Analyzer Sub Unit (ASU) Tech Refreshes. The Critical Obsolescence Program (COP) began in fiscal year 2004 to improve aircraft availability through replacement of obsolete and/or top degrader systems. COP systems include the ACQ-8 Data Link as replacement for the ACQ-5, and the ASX-6 Multi-Mode Imaging System (MMIS) as replacement for the AAS-36 IRDS. The Navy has shifted the P-3C's operational emphasis to the littoral regions and is improving the antisurface warfare (ASUW) capabilities of the P-3C. The antisurface warfare improvement program (AIP) incorporates enhancements in ASUW; over-the-horizon targeting (OTH-T); command, control, communications, computers and intelligence (C4I) and improves survivability. The 72nd and final AIP configured P-3C will be delivered to the Fleet in 2007. Upgrades to the armament system include the addition of the AGM-84H/K SLAM-ER missile and Mk54 torpedo capabilities. Also included are a MK-50 torpedo and Harpoon weapon system upgrades, a data processing subsystem based on the CP-2451/ASQ-227 digital computer, and the AN/ALR-66B(V)3 ESM system. The AN/ALR-66A/B(V)3 Electronic Support Measures [ESM] Set provides concurrent radar warning receiver data (threat data) along with ESM data (fine measurement of classical parametric data). The AN/ALR-66B(V)3 Set provides increased sensitivity and processing improvements over its predecessor, the AN/ALR-66A(V)3.

The total value of the MMA program was recently estimated to top $44 billion by the end of its run, including foreign sales not yet defined. The Navy’s current P-3Cs may be made available for foreign sales as they are replaced by the MMA. A Navy spokesperson said in April, 2007, that while the P-8A’s mission system specific systems remain classified at this time, the P-8A Electronic Warfare Self Protection Suite is expected to include the AAR-54 Missile Warning System, APR-39 Radar Warning System, ALE-47 Countermeasure Dispensers, and the AAQ-24 Directed Infrared Countermeasure System. The P-8A also includes mounting wiring, mounting and power provisions for future incorporation of a radio frequency countermeasure system for littoral environment operations. The P-8A will be equipped with an internal five-station weapons bay, four wing weapon stations, and two forward fuselage weapon stations, all supported by digital stores management allowing for joint missiles, torpedoes and mines. The P-8 will also employ three rotary reloadable, pneumatically controlled sonobuoy launchers. The P-8 is scheduled to carry the APY-10 radar.

NAVAIR said that the Navy still plans to purchase 108 production P-8As with the first aircraft scheduled to be delivered for flight test in 2009.

The Aerial Common Sensor Program – to have created the follow-on to Guardrail 2000 - was rolled-out at Moffett Field, CA, in February, 2000. ACS was to have merged in one system the capabilities of Guardrail and the Airborne Reconnaissance Low (ARL) system, combining COMINT and ELINT, with what is now provided by ARL. The ACS system was to employ manned airborne collection platforms, ground-based exploitation facilities, wideband data links, full communications capabilities, and a satellite remote capability. In August, 2004, Embrauer and Lockheed Martin won the ACS contract, which coincided with the Navy’s seeking a new platform to replace the EP-3E. The Army had planned to field its ACS units in 2010 and the Navy, judging ACS to also meet its needs, estimated a more complex version to suit it could be flying by 2012. However, subsequently, the Army bailed-out of the plan to buy the Embraer-145 business jet after finding the aircraft too small to accommodate what is apparently becoming a larger and heavier system than first planned. Lockheed was to have delivered five aircraft to the Army by 2010 and 33 more by 2018. The Navy tentatively had an option to buy an additional 19 aircraft but had not yet signed for such deliveries despite being involved in initial project reviews and analyses. The subsequent dropping of the Embrauer-145 aircraft as too small was more than a little ironic when one considers that the Navy’s P-8A Multimission Maritime Aircraft was originally dropped as the EP-3E’s replacement for being too large. If the MMA airframe is finally chosen for ACS, the cycle will have come full circle.

At the time the Army bailed from the ACS replacement program, the Navy had eleven operational EP-3E aircraft with an additional five undergoing conversion from P3-C's to EP-3E's for a total of sixteen, meeting the requirement to maintain a Primary Authorized Aircraft (PAA) of 12 EP-3E aircraft. Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for ACS-Navy had been planned for 2012 with the first of two squadrons replaced and continuing until planned Full Operational Capabililty (FOC) in 2014 with the second squadron replaced.

According to Lockheed, there are several options under consideration by the US Navy regarding the current and future disposition of the EP-3E. The Navy has established a program of record designated as “EP-X” and in addition, continues to maintain a $645M budget item in the POM for EP-3E mission capitalization. Because the Aerial Common Sensor replacement program is in limbo, the Navy has funded an additional seven Special Structural Inspection Kits (SSI-Ks) for EP-3Es to bring the total SSI-Ks to twelve. This is aimed at ensuring EP-3E airframe availability until a recap platform is fielded. No additional EP-3E mission system capabilities are planned outside of the current Operational Requirements Document. An FY05 supplemental does provide funds for the fielding of USQ-146 capabilities on 10 EP-3E aircraft. While the P-8A will enjoy some ESM capabilities, all systems details remain classified.

The Navy has consolidated the basing of all the EP-3E’s at NAS WHIDBEY ISLAND, WA. However, the Navy plans to deploy the P-8A and BAMS to NAS JACKSONVILLE, FL., NAS WHIDBEY ISLAND, WA, and MCAS KANEOHE BAY, HI. In addition, the Navy plans to forward deploy these assets at existing deployment sites around the world.

In 2003, the EP-3E program began the Joint Airborne SIGINT Architecture Modernization (JMOD) Common Configuration (JCC) upgrade, consisting of three spirals that improve SIGINT sensor system capabilities incrementally through 2013. JCC Spiral I achieved IOC in 2006 providing an automated electronic surveillance measures capability with airborne Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System/Secret Internet Protocol Router Network connectivity, precision direction finding, multiplatform geo-location with integrated Link-16 capability. Future planned Spirals II (Data Fusion) and III (Comms Upgrade) will bridge the gap between the present capabilities fielded in Spiral I and likely both the P-8 and BAMS.

In the past few years, there was talk of adding USQ-113s or USQ-146s to some of the EP-3Es. PMA-290 is conducting an analysis of sustainment requirements for the EP-3E to ensure availability until the capability is recapitalized, including SSI-K. While, as noted above, there are to be ten EP-3Es upgraded with the USQ-146, there is currently no available information suggesting mission system improvements by adding the USQ-113 or ALR-95. PMA-290 has a program of record for this that is funded throughout POM-08.

Regarding BAMS, while the final number of BAMS UAVS is yet undetermined, the Lockheed Martin MS2 Tactical Systems - General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Mariner UAV -- a maritime-modified version of the Predator-B (MQ-9) – continues testing. The Naval Air Systems Command, Navy and Marine Corps Unmanned Air Systems Program Office, PMA-263, released a Request for Proposal in the 1st Quarter CY07 with contract awarded 3rd Quarter CY07 and Initial Operational Capability in CY13. BAMS will have an ESM capability but so far no requirement exists for SIGINT/COMINT in BAMS. At the Navy’s Industry Day 2006, spokespeople from PMA-290 indicated that requirements for the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) do not include performing penetrating Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR). Further BAMS electronic capabilities and system details are currently classified SECRET and SCI. NAVAIR’s public affairs officer Sandra Schroeder reports that once the RFP has been released, more details are likely to be forthcoming. In January, 2007, Australia signed an agreement with the Navy to delay the release of tenders for BAMS from January until mid-February, to enable the modification of bid documents to meet unique Australian requirements for the system. Australia has also been seen as the most likely to enter into a development partnership for the P-8 after Italy and Canada first expressed interest in and then declined a similar partnership. Canberra has reportedly signed an agreement to participate in the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase of BAMS. The Australian-specific requirements will focus upon the development of the integrated ground environment and ground support system. Additional requirements include requests for alternative sensors able to support combined wide-area land and maritime surveillance, electronic intelligence systems, and an alternative communications architecture. Australian industry officials reportedly said that they anticipated any delay to the program will cause a reciprocal delay in the Australian DoD’s planned release of a tender for a local industry partner to integrate BAMS into the Australian Defence Force’s command, control and intelligence architecture. That tender is currently due to be released mid-February and close 4 April. In mid-2006, Australia announced that it was linking its Air 7000 Phase 1B endurance UAV requirements to BAMS with the objectives of reducing acquisition overheads and providing opportunities for increased interoperability with the US in conducting maritime surveillance operations.

Of course, all this depends upon money being available. Despite good planning by the Navy, with Navy funding in general and both the P-8 and BAMS funding in particular under pressure from a military budget ever more dominated by the financial needs of land and littoral warfare (i.e. Army and Marine Corps), the futures of the P-8, BAMS, and ACS are likely to remain uncertain. The US Navy is finding it cannot afford the cost of several new weapons systems it deems critical for the 21st century. In January, 2007, the Navy fired the captain in charge of the 55-ship LCS program and ordered a sudden halt to construction of Lockheed Martin’s Littoral Combat Ships - the first 70% complete and the second not yet started - because of cost overruns approaching 100%. Since early 2005, there have also been major cuts to DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class (DDX), which has ballooned 400% per hull and may be canceled entirely, the SSN-774 Virginia-class, the LPD-17 San Antonio-class, and the troubled V-22 Osprey. Last fall the Navy fired the LCS Program Manager and abruptly canceled LCS-3 and LCS-4, with that money needed to finish the first two hulls. Congress has since floated the idea of a single hull solution for both LCS and the Coast Guard’s new National Security Cutter. DOD program funding is coming to look like a game of Whack-A-Mole.

The Navy maintains that the P-8A is budgeted for $44B through its domestic production run, which is to provide 108 aircraft to replace its P-3Cs (the P-8 is now budgeted for $6.28 billion through 2011, by which time several developmental aircraft will have been built and tested). The initial development portion of the P-8 cost the Navy $3.9 billion. In early 2004 fly-away cost of each MMA was estimated at $126 million per aircraft and $190 million per aircraft if all expenses were amortized over the fleet. If that estimate follows a conservative military systems cost annual inflation of even 8%, a more accurate estimate is likely to be $206 million per aircraft, or $312 million each including amortization. Based on the 2007 P-8 estimated production budget, this would mean a drop in aircraft from 108 to 65, or a decrease of about 40%.

VP, along with anti-mine warfare, continues to be a poor relation in a Navy still driven by the aircraft carrier admirals. The Navy just finished disposing of its Osprey-class coastal mine hunters as a money saving measure, despite this leaving the U.S. with no organic capability for harbor anti-mine defense. Anti-mine warfare and anti-submarine warfare usually suffer between wars. If the Navy replaces the P-3C but not the EP-3E it will be stuck with both having to buy a new airplane and keeping an old one flying. Replacing the EP-3 with a UAV looks ever more likely, as noted above. Replacing the P-3C with a UCAV would be much more difficult, as the P-3 is also a complex weapons release platform. But the savings in not having to accommodate a crew might make the trade worthwhile. Where not long ago the P-3C’s and EP-3E’s primary adversaries were the USSR and China, it is budgets, shifting wartime forces, and ever more capable technology that now threaten the P-8, a successor to the EP-3E, and ever more manned military platforms.

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