$8B ACS Spy Plane Program Shot Down By Pentagon
In 2005 it looked like the Aerial Common Sensor (ACS) program, a joint US Army/ US Navy program, would replace three different reconnaissance planes used for signals interception (SIGINT), ground-looking SAR radars, and imagery intelligence (IMINT).
By November 2005 Lockheed had dropped Embraer’s ERJ-145 jet from its proposal in favor of Bombardier’s larger, longer-range, longer endurance Global Express jet. Its new design would closely resemble the in-service British ASTOR Sentinel R1 in order to offer lower risk, greater cost certainty, and even allied interoperability. Hedging its bets, Lockheed also offered the US military a cut-down ERJ-145 option with less equipment as a lower-budget alternative.
In the end, however, neither move availed them.
The ACS Program: No Happy Ending
In mid-December of 2005, the US military extended the ACS review period, a move that indicated residual unease. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reports that the US Army’s head of acquisitions recommended canceling the program in December 2005, but Army secretary Francis Harvey decided to extend the review by a month.
At the end of that review period, Lockheed’s $879 million ACS contract has indeed been cancelled, essentially shelving the $8 billion program. During that 2005-1010 contract period, the Army had planned to procure 5 fully configured ACS aircraft out of its eventual 38, while the Navy wuld have received 2 Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDT&E) aircraft out of its eventual 19 planes. The US Navy said it agreed with the Army’s decision.
The Washington Post put it this way:
” The military faced two choices, according to the Army’s letter to Congress. It could use the aircraft Lockheed originally proposed and have less capability or switch to a larger plane and more than double development costs. Moving to a larger plane would probably have triggered complaints from Northrop Grumman Corp., which lost the competition for the program in 2004 and had planned to use a larger aircraft.”
Actually, as DID’s research in “The Kerfuffle Around the Shuffle” showed, Northrop Grumman’s G450 proposal was not significantly larger, and would not have met the ACS’ revised weight, range and endurance parameters either. Of course, as that same article noted, Lockheed’s alternatives would have opened the door to new complaints. Despite Lockheed’s attempts to minimize their risk profile from this quarter, as described in DID’s November 2005 ACS update, further complaints were indeed likely.
The US Army, in return, reacted in order to minimize its own risk profile.
The US Army’s Communication and Electronics Command (CECOM) in Fort Monmouth, NJ, issued a statement saying that it had terminated Lockheed’s contract for the initial phase of the program, awarded in August 2004:
“After carefully evaluating Lockheed’s proposals, we decided that the prudent course of action at this time was to terminate the contract and bring the various players – industry, the acquisition and user communities, the Navy and Air Force – back to the drawing board to make sure we all have a firm understanding of what the requirements are and the various challenges we need to overcome to make this program succeed…”
An Army spokesman, Timothy Rider, said the contract was terminated for “convenience of the government,” as opposed to any Lockheed failure to perform. As such, the government is liable for payment, so this isn’t exactly a happy ending for them either.
Lockheed, meanwhile, was somewhat repentant:
“We regret but respect the government’s decision to terminate” the contract, Lockheed spokeswoman Judith B. Gan said in a written statement that was reported by The Washington Post. The company has “made significant progress in the development of the multi-intelligence sensor system but encountered technical challenges with the integration of this state-of-the-art system into the aircraft platform.”
The company also accepted “responsibility for the execution issues that arose during the course of this contract,” and has said that it will submit a settlement proposal in line with federal acquisition rules.
The rules… and of course its own interest in maintaining a good relationship with the program sponsors.
ACS: What Now?
It is unclear whether the US Army will seek to use some of the technology developed for the ACS program elsewhere, or preserve it in some way. Bloomberg News reports that the U.S. Army plans to cut the program’s budget by almost 60% through 2011, and use some of those funds to upgrade the spy planes that the project was to replace.
DID noted and detailed these aircraft in our original ACS article:
- The Beech King Air derived RC-12 Guardrail
- The Dash-7 derived RC-7 “Crazy Hawk” Airborne Reconnaissance Low; and
- The EP-3 Aries II counterpart of the P-3 Orion maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft.
This contract outcome is a boon for Lockheed competitor Northrop Grumman. According to the Wall Street Journal, the firm leads the associated maintenance contracts for existing aircraft. With the exception, one presumes, of Lockheed’s EP-3 Aries. According to ABC News, Northrop says it is continuing to upgrade Guardrail for operational use to at least 2020, but said (of course) that it would welcome a chance to compete again for the projected new spy-plane.
Will there be a chance? The amount of money being diverted from the ACS program into the existing fleet is cause for legitimate doubt, but the US Army, at least, may still be interested on some level.
“The Army remains committed to building and fielding the next-generation reconnaissance aircraft for the war fighter,” Claude Bolton, assistant US Army secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology, said in the CECOM statement that cancelled Lockheed’s contract. According to The Washington Post, the Army’s statement also said it would open a new competition for the plane in 2009.
According to Defense News, meanwhile, the US Navy said it would conduct a six-month study to determine the best combination of manned and unmanned systems that would meet the service’s future requirements. The US Navy is already using Northrop-Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk as a maritime surveillance test bed, and that UAV platform recently flew with upgraded SIGINT/ELINT equipment. The US Army is also testing a reconfigurable communications relay – SIGINT – electronic warfare payload on the RQ-5 Hunter UAV. Meanwhile, Australia’s Coastwatch program may end up using General Atomics’ MQ-9 Predator B derived Mariner UAV, and India has begun using its IAI Heron UAVs in a maritime role.
UPDATE: To ensure the viability of the current EP-3 fleet, Aviation Week reports that the Navy will expand the service-life extension program by around 7 aircraft. Aircraft are being inspected to determine whether their aging airframes need the structural enhancement kit, and electronics and sensors are being modernized via the Joint Airborne Sigint Architecture Modernization Common Configuration program. It will add more automation, databases and integration to electronic intelligence-gathering. The EP-3 Aries II is expected to reach the end of its service life around 2017.
ACS: Lessons Learned?
The ACS battlefield SIGINT(SIGnals INTelligence) – ELINT(Electronic eavesdropping & INTelligence) – IMINT(Imagery INTelligence) planes were meant to serve both the US Army and the US Navy. The hope was that creating a joint-service program would bolster its support inside the Pentagon (by creating greater joint interoperability) and on Capitol Hill (by lowering overall costs). In the end, however, reconciling two services’ missions and equipment specifications adds complexities of its own. Loren B. Thompson, a defense industry consultant at the Lexington Institute made this point very specifically to The Washington Post: “For example, while the Army wanted the plane to monitor the battlefield, the Navy wanted its version to intercept overseas communications in the Western Pacific and the Middle East…”
In the end, reconciling those differing requirements, at the cost Lockheed originally proposed, proved too difficult. Once problems arose that forced the program into suspension and stall, the program was wounded and weakened. In a tight budgetary environment, and with pressing military needs elsewhere, the sharks began circling and cancellation followed.
Did it have to be this way?
An October 21, 2005 Boston Globe article also quoted assistant Army secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology Claude Bolton as saying that closer coordination earlier in the process could have averted some of the issues.
A more telling question, however, asks “what kind of coordination?” The problem may well go beyond the basic issue of specifications changes, and into more systemic aspects of this procurement.
A US Army BCSE Directorate case study done in May 2003 noted that early coordination and simulation were not in short supply for ACS. Incentives, simulation tools, calibration scenarios, and collaborative electronic environments were all present. Yet somehow, a weight gain of over 5,000 pounds ended up destroying the program because the aircraft bid couldn’t handle it. DID’s article “The Kerfuffle Around the Shuffle” explains the process involved in more detail.
Hence the deeper question, “what kind of coordination earlier in the process?”
A better question to ask may be: weren’t flexibility and “head room” deserving of more weight in the bidding selection criteria, given the two services’ divergences in their missions and requirements? The offers of Embraer ERJ-145 and Gulfstream G450 aircraft by the respective contractors suggests that additional capacity was not seen as a top priority in the bidding process; the resulting “prisoners dilemma” situation excluded larger aircraft platforms, in order to win the bid on cost.
Unfortunately for the winner, those mission divergences, and the resulting requirements changes, created a situation that neither of the originally-proposed aircraft could handle. At which point, program cancellation was easier than a fix.
In our original article, and in our update, DID has commented that the ACS program would make a great procurement case study. That is still true – and the full lessons learned document has yet to be written.
Additional Readings: Program & Aircraft Details
- DID (Sept 9/05) – ACS Reconnaissance Plane: The Kerfuffle Around the Shuffle (updated Oct 12/05). Also contains a section with details re: current in-service aircraft and others that synthesize data re: the ACS competitor platforms.
- GlobalSecurity.org – Aerial Common Sensor
- US Army Fort Monmouth – Project Management, Aerial Common Sensors
- Air Force Technology – ASTOR Sentinel R1 Airborne Stand-Off Radar, United Kingdom
- Gizmag (Jan 13/06) – ASTOR Radar tests deliver quality target imagery
- Spyflight – Gulfstream III / IV-SP / V. Describes the military variants in service around the world, including G450/550 based aircraft.
- Israeli Defense Forces (Sept 20/06) – IAF Unveils “Etam” AWACS Jet. The AWACS and SIGINT/ELINT/SAR versions are both based on Gulfstream’s G550.
- General Dynamics Gulfstream (Sept 20/06) – Gulfstream Delivers Conformal Airborne Early Warning (CAEW) G550 Aircraft To Israeli Ministry Of Defense. Discusses both the CAEW and SEMA variants, and adds useful details regarding these platforms.
- General Dynamics Gulfstream (June 14/05) – Gulfstream Special Electronic Mission Aircraft Delivered To Israeli Ministry Of Defense. Based on the G550.
- US Army, Battle Command, Simulation & Experimentation Directorate (May 19/03) – SMART Lessons Learned Case Summary: Aerial Common Sensor
Additional Readings and Sources: News & Events
- Aviation Week & Space Technology (Jan 29/06) – Boeing Polishes 737 Design For EP-3 Replacement
- DID (Jan 25/06) – ACS Failure Fallout: Boeing to Offer SIGINT 737. Expect them to be a contender if the ACS program revives – though they may also be positioning for a program split between the US Army & Navy. DID offers full details, and the article has been updated since January 25.
- Washington Post (Jan 12/06) – Army Ends Lockheed Contract for New Spy Plane
- Defense News (Jan 12/06) – U.S. Army Cancels ACS Contract with Lockheed
- ABC News (Jan 12/06) – Army scraps Lockheed spy-plane contract
- US army Garrison Fort Monmouth (Jan 12/05) – Army Terminates Aerial Common Sensor Development Contract
- Wall Street Journal, subscription required (Jan 12/06) – Army is Poised to Kill Spy-Plane Effort
- Flight International (Dec 12/05) – Decision on ACS Postponed Again
- Flight International (Dec 1/05) – Lockheed ACS surveillance aircraft ‘set to be killed’
- DID (Nov 18/05) – ACS Update: Lockheed Drops ERJ-145, Shifts to Bombardier Jet. Also offers some analysis of the move, and additional related information.