Aerial Common Sensor: Once More, With Feeling
In January 2006, “$8B ACS Spy Plane Program Shot Down By Pentagon” described the demise of the joint Army/Navy Aerial Common Sensor program. ACS intended to replace the King Air derived RC-12N Guardrail, Dash-7 derived RC-7B “Crazy Hawk”/ARL, and P-3 Orion derived EP-3E Aries aircraft, with a new multi-role reconnaissance platform based on a small regional jet airframe. The original Embraer ERJ-145 platform proposed by Lockheed Martin proved too small, and even an attempted move to the same Bombardier Global Express jet used in the UK’s new ASTOR Sentinel R1 reconnaissance platform did not avail them. The US Army expressed no confidence, and put the project back to square one as it revised both its specs and its approach.
The Navy, meanwhile, split from ACS and went its own way, initiating the EPX program to replace its EP-3s. Boeing has proposed a reconnaissance and electronic intelligence version of the same 737 aircraft that the Navy plans to use for its P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, and other entrants to the proposed manned aircraft program are likely.
Now the Army has also rethought its approach, and begun the process of revisiting the ACS project. A $460+ million program will refurbish and upgrade the RC-12N Guardrail fleet to extend their service life, UAVs have emerged to fill some of the short-range reconnaissance gap, and SIGINT(SIGnals INTelligence, i.e. electronic eavesdropping) capabilities are being added to the USAF’s RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs reconnaissance sensors from Block 20 onward. The Guardrails will still have a limited lifespan, however, and this coverage set still leaves holes. Hence the new approach to ACS…
In 2006, the Office of the Secretary of Defense ordered the “Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Study” to re-examine how the military branches would conduct their ISR missions. That study concluded that there was still a need for manned aircraft with a handful of analysts onboard, who can gather information from a number of sources and then communicate processed, usable intelligence to the front lines.
With the UAV option ruled out, the next question was how best to proceed, as the clock ticks down on their existing fleets.
The first decision was to part ways with the Navy, though the Navy was already leaning hard in that direction. Carpenter acknowledged that “We are pursuing different capabilities, based on different requirements”; trying to fit both the Army and Navy requirements on one aircraft, he said, would result in a bigger aircraft than the Army needed and increase program risk. Lip service will be given to interoperability, of course, and some effort made, mostly around the expected sensor payloads. The goal of both programs is to leverage sensor and communications developments in other programs, from Global Hawk to the revamped RC-12 Guardrails, while remaining “interoperable and compatible with national systems” on the communications end.
The current timeline for ACS would see requests for industry proposals in the late summer of 2008; a formal review and start of the program in 2009, and “Increment One” productions models in 2016.
The design approach to ACS has changed in the interim. Instead of attempting to do full integration of a new platform and new sensors, ACS Increment One will fuse mature, existing sensor technologies with the required communications network. The communications suite would link the aircraft to national systems, but especially to the proposed Distributed Common Ground Station-Army (DCGS-A), which provides tools that allow analysts to gather intelligence data from multiple sources and convert it into analytical products for delivery to the Army’s battle command applications. This approach adds dependencies, but also removes some of the required equipment and weight from the aircraft.
The Army would then add more advanced sensor payloads to its ACS aircraft in planned increments, culminating in an Increment 4 version that would be fielded “after 2020.”
“This time we’re going to ensure that industry really understands the concept of operations and requirements,” said ACS Project Manager Col. Robert Carpenter.
As readers will recall, however, when the original program ran into payload size difficulties and then failed, DID wondered how much evaluation weight had been given to “headroom” for additional payloads et. al., rather than encouraging submission of the smallest and cheapest platform in order to win the bid. An incremental payload strategy will make that factor even more important under the current plan, which can’t specify its final space and power requirements.
Will the Army’s ACS v2.0 RFP work with that reality, or against it?
- US Army (Jan 31/08) – Army Charts New Course for Intel Aircraft Program
- Congressional Government Accountability Office (May 17/07, #GAO-07-578) – Greater Synergies Possible for DOD’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance Systems. Includes some details re: EPX.
- Northrop Grumman – Aerial Common Sensor. Their bid appears to revolve around a modified Gulfstream business jet, which would have an unmanned option.
- DID (Jan 13/06) – $8B ACS Spy Plane Program Shot Down By Pentagon
- DID (Nov 18/05) – ACS Update: Lockheed Drops ERJ-145, Shifts to Bombardier Jet
- DID (Oct 12/05) – ACS Reconnaissance Plane: The Kerfuffle Around the Shuffle (updated). Lockheed Martin runs into trouble, and proposes a platform switch.