ACS Reconnaissance Plane: The Kerfuffle Around the Shuffle (updated)
The Aerial Common Sensor (ACS) is a joint US Army/ US Navy program that would replace three different reconnaissance planes used for signals interception (SIGINT), ground-looking SAR radars, and imagery intelligence (IMINT). The story of that program’s evolution over the last year is an excellent example of the kinds of issues and development challenges that face many new defense designs, even those that use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology as a starting point.
On Sept 9, 2005, DID covered a major proposed change in the program, and explained the likely dynamics behind it. Now an October 10, 2005 report in Defense News has confirmed much of that analysis and added new information, while the proposed change has become a tug-of-war involving the US Army and Lockheed Martin.
In August 2004, a Lockheed/Embraer team won an $879 million ACS contract to develop electronics and sensors fitted on Embraer’s RJ 145 regional jet. The losing team, led by Northrop Grumman, proposed designing the system based on General Dynamics’ Gulfstream 450 jet. The stakes were high, as the overall program could eventually be worth as much as $7 billion – the US Army is expected to order 38 of the planes, with the Navy buying 19 more.
A year later, however, the U.S. Army and its contractors are engaged in a tug-of-war over changing their chosen aircraft platform. The change will probably mean delays and more costs; meanwhile, Northrop Grumman is crying foul. What’s going on?
C4ISR Journal reports that Army officials are currently evaluating proposals by Lockheed Martin to change its original choice of aircraft platform from the 50-seat Embraer RJ 145 to the 100-seat RJ 190 regional jet.
The US Army review’s Sept. 14, 2005 statement said that “an alternate aircraft to the Embraer 145 will be necessary to achieve mission capability.”
Now Defense News quotes Marshall Keith, Lockheed’s ACS program manager, as saying that The ERJ-145 is “not off the table” at the annual convention of the Association of the United States Army in Washington. That was October 4, 2005.
Potential cost increases and delays won’t be known until the Army and Lockheed finalize the issue. Lockheed Martin’s previous cost-plus-award-fee contract would technically indicate that any increase in cost is likely to be borne by the US Army, which makes this behaviour odd. The complicating factor is that a renegotiation effort appears to be underway – and that prospect is driving behaviours on both sides of the procurement fence.
To understand how this came about, it first helps to understand which planes the ACS would be replacing.
One is the US Army’s fleet of RC-7B/EO-5B Crazy Hawk Airborne Reconnaissance Low aircraft for signals interception (SIGINT), imagery (IMINT) and ground-viewing SAR radar. The RC-7B was based on the four engine Dash-7 turboprop, a popular 54-seat regional transport aircraft. The plane made the news briefly when one went down in 1999 during a mission in Colombia. It was subsequently replaced by other aircraft.
The US Army’s RC-12 Guardrail Common Sensor SIGINT planes were based on variants of the twin engine Beech King Air flown by some private pilots.
Then we have the US Navy’s aging EP-3E Aries II SIGINT planes, based on the large P-3 Orion platform. It was an EP-3E Aries II that was forced down in a collision (some would say deliberate collision) by the Chinese in 2001, and subsequently stripped of any equipment not destroyed by its crew. As DID has noted in another article, the EP-3s will be converted into P-3C Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, replacing more worn P-3Cs already in service in order to keep the fleet flying until the Boeing 737-based P-8A Multi-mission Maritime Aircaft can replace them.
These 3 planes obviously involve significant variations in size, payload, range, and operating costs per hour. This also hints at different capabilities requirements for the various customers. Choosing an aircraft platform that would be acceptable to all was foreordained to be a careful balancing act.
Army officials say that regardless of the industrial team selected for the Aerial Common Sensor (ACS) program, there would have been a change at this point. Exhaustive program analysis, which led to the decision to change the airplane, was scheduled to be done only after the contract was awarded.
In particular, the analysis of how the electronics package would be fitted on the RJ 145 was deferred until after the contract was awarded. These analyses can be time consuming and expensive, involving integration concerns that include electronic, physical, and ergonomic issues. Still, some preliminary work had been done.
In the run-up to the competition in early 2004, in a phase known as component advanced development, the competing teams received money from the Army to develop elements of the electronic systems that are the heart of the ACS spy-plane program. The focus was on developing those components and not on how to fit them on the aircraft, which would come later.
In February 2004, Lockheed turned in a preliminary proposal based on four workstations for operators, and flight endurance parameters based on information company executives gathered during an October 2003 industry day meeting with Army officials. The aircraft selected on that basis was the RJ 145.
In April 2004, the Army issued a clarification that it wanted the aircraft to have six workstations for operators, and expected the plane to carry more load and fly longer.
In response, Lockheed examined alternatives but decided that changes to the RJ 145, including extending the wings and extracting 10% more power from the engines would meet the weight and endurance requirements the Army wanted. That’s what the company proposed in its final bid in June 2004.
Lockheed’s bid won.
The company then began reviewing the detailed aircraft integration plans as stipulated in the contract, and eventually identified a weight and/or space issue for some of the required equipment sets. These findings led to the aircraft platform change request.
According to a September 21, 2005 Boston Globe article, Assistant Army Secretary for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Claude Bolton noted that the program saw a huge 6,400-pound growth in the weight of the sensors that needed to be put aboard the plane; the rresulting total was reportedly about 3,000 pounds more than the ERJ-145 could handle.
As such, the US Army’s Sept. 14, 2005 review statement said that “an alternate aircraft to the Embraer 145 will be necessary to achieve mission capability,” and noted that the “weight of the ACS payload and required airframe modifications exceed the structural limits of Lockheed Martin’s selected aircraft.” The statement directed Lockheed to stop work, and gave the company 60 days to come up with alternatives to the ERJ-145.
Lockheed later replied that it has found “trade spaces” that will allow the ERJ-145 to remain a contender for the program. Which creates some confusion: is this a weight problem, or a space problem?
As we’ll see later, the answer to that question greatly affects the ACS program’s alternate options.
Should the platform change, of course, the same integration studies would have to be done over, in order to create a detailed plan for integration with the new aircraft. That isn’t the only additional cost, however, or the only factor driving Lockheed and the Army’s recent behaviours.
Northrop Grumman claims that its Gulfstream 450 based offer would have met all the requirements, thanks to an exhaustive analysis of the capabilities of different aircraft and their weight and payload characteristics. The company also proposed “an extensive weight management plan, which is typical of a program like this.”
The Gulfstream 450’s specs do show almost twice the range of either Embraer aircraft (8,000km vs. 3,000-3,700km), but it also has a payload weight far lower than either of the two Embraer jets (GS-450 = 2,700 kg | RJ-145 = 5,500 kg pre-mod | RJ-190 = 12,400 kg). In terms of dimensions, the Gulfstream 450 is about 2.5 meters shorter than the RJ 145, but has a slightly longer wingspan. It’s almost 13 meters shorter than the 36m RJ 190, however, with a wingspan approximately 5 meters shorter.
The new Israeli “Nachshon” SIGINT/ ELINT aircraft under development by IAI, Gulfstream, and L-3 also uses a Gulfstream aircraft, but it’s the larger and more expensive G550, which improves range and performance but not payload. This class of jet can certainly accomodate the role, therefore; the question is whether it can accomodate the USA’s needs and equipment levels in this role.
It’s unclear whether Lockheed’s proposed change would lead to the competition’s reopening, though a Northrop Grumman spokesman has said the company remains interested in a second chance at the program. Which would, of course, offer them the ability to choose a new aircraft themselves if they wished.
Lockheed, meanwhile, claimed that the issues it found one year later were unrelated to how it chose the RJ-145, and that the two are “completely different issues.”
One logical question is when the problems with the RJ-145 should have been identified. In a September 9, 2005 interview with Edward Bair, the ACS’ Program Executive Pfficer (PEO) at the Communications and Electronics Command (CECOM), Defense News reports that “The problem with the ERJ-145 arose because the modeling tools used by the Army and Lockheed underestimated the weight of cables, harnesses and the cooling required on board the aircraft by nearly 50 percent…”
One would think these discerpancies would be manageable, as these systems are not usually a large percentage of payload weight. The clear implication here is that Lockheed’s chosen jet didn’t have a lot of extra capacity, and that the Army’s request to add two more stations and lengthen endurance made the choice of plane questionable. Yet Lockheed proposed only minor modifications, leaving them almost no “wiggle room” for eventualities like the one PEO Blair described. Why might that be?
Speaking from the Army side, Bolton has said 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.
It’s important to remember that aircraft cost was certainly a factor in the final proposal. Until a winner was selected and had begun to fulfill the detailed design portion of the contract, the need for the added expense of using a substantially larger (ERJ-190) or more capable (G550) aircraft could not be demonstrated conclusively. As such, a contractor who proposed one as a way of giving the project added “safety capacity” would hurt their overall prospects for the contract – unless having that extra capacity or performance was a major criterion in the selection process that they believed would trump cost.
DID is not familiar enough with the ACS selection criteria weighting to know, but this is probably the first question one should ask. Especially given the divergent Army/Navy requirements which made extra aircraft capacity more likely to be necessary.
Lockheed’s subsequent determination to hold on the its choice of the RJ-145 may be driven by a true engineering solution – indeed, that is precisely what the upcoming interim review will determine.
It’s also worthy of note, however, that switching airframes mid-stream introduces a myriad of additional costs and complications, above and beyond the price of the new platform.
Defense News’ October 10, 2005 article notes that at a Sept. 16 news briefing, CECOM’s Bair said selection of another aircraft could add $500 million beyond the $1.2 billion the Army intended to spend during the early system development phases alone. Their article also quoted Ron Epstein, an aerospace and defense analyst at Merrill Lynch in New York City. He notes that an unmodified ERJ-145 from Embraer would cost about $10 – $12 million, while the ERJ-190 could cost about $22 million before any modifications. We’d add that the cost would rise even further if the Boeing 737 was selected, or even smaller ultra-long range jets like Bombardier’s Global Express (the basis of Britain’s similar ASTOR Sentinel R1) or Gulfstream’s slightly smaller G550 (the basis for Israel’s similar “Nachshon”/”Etam” aircraft).
Which brings us to Lockheed’s current dilemma.
Defense News reports that Lockheed is considering several other airplanes. Relatively large options include Embraer’s ERJ-190 and even the Boeing 737, while the Bombardier Global Express and Gulfstream 550 (used as the Israeli “Nachshon” platform and in other specialty roles) offer planes that are broadly comparable in size to the ERJ-145 but offer specific engineering advantages.
The ERJ-145 has the smallest cabin volume by far among the planes being considered as platforms for the ACS (ERJ-145: 27.4 m3 | Gulfstream 550: 47.3 m3 | Bombardier Global Express: 60.6 m3 | Embraer ERJ-190 not given exactly, but it’s about 90 m3). The ERJ-145 also has greater payload weight capacity than similar sized rivals, as noted above, but offers much less range (up to 3,700 km) than the Bomardier Global Express (11,130 km) or Gulfstream 550 (12,501 km). Note that the Embraer ERJ-190 also has less stated range than these alternative options at 4,260 km, even if one discounts the figures for the smaller jets somewhat due to likely equipment weight. Range and time on station are important performance characteristics for effective SIGINT/ELINT/IMINT spy planes, and it’s conceivable that the US Army could push for trade-offs on that basis.
Every single one these options creates further dilemmas for Lockheed.
- Maintaining the Embraer (E)RJ-145 as its platform offers the fewest openings for outside challenges. On the other hand, stubbornness on this front could also lead to rejection of their platform by the US Army and souring of its customer relationship, followed by a recompete on the whole contract.
- The Embraer ERJ-190 maintains the winning partnership team and offers the second fewest opportunities for outside challenges, but doubles the base airframe cost. Note that for a complex spy plane, electronics and modifications are the key and the airframe alone may not even represent a majority of the final fly-away cost. Nevertheless, note the platform switching costs that CECOM’s Blair cited. Even if these figures prove to be high, negotiations re: which party should bear the eventual costs would be intense, putting significant pressure on Lockheed to make concessions that would sharply impact their profitability on this program.
- If the Boeing 737 is specified as the ACS replacement platform, it creates potential commonalities with the P-8 MMA maritime multimission aircraft and eliminates any ACS concerns about space, payload, or range. On the other hand, unit costs shoot up dramatically at $50-75 milion per unmodified airframe, and the whole ACS program may be rethought.
- If Lockheed chooses the Gulfstream 550, Northrop-Grumman would have a solid basis to demand a re-opening of the competition given that Gulfstream was originally its partner. The G550 is also going to be more expensive than the ERJ-145, and may even be more expensive than the ERJ-190.
- If they choose Bombardier’s Global Express instead, they get a larger airframe with far superior range to the Embraer options and leave Northrop-Grumman fewer openings to force a recompete. On the other hand, Gulfstream could now protest on “buy America” grounds since its plane is comparable. The Global Express is also going to be more expensive than the ERJ-145, and probably more expensive than the ERJ-190.
This process isn’t over yet. Lockheed and the Army will be conducting conduct an interim review in the next few weeks, and Lockheed’s revised proposal is due on November 14, 2005. After that, the US Army has 30 days to decide what to do: accept the proposal, reject it and demand a new proposal from Lockheed, or re-open the competition as Northrop-Grumman has requested.
Based on the above data, DID still believes the ACS program is likely to go ahead with its existing contractor and a new aircraft platform – probably the ERJ-190. The kerfuffle around the shuffle, however, offers an illustrative window into many behind-the-scenes dynamics involved in military procurement of new systems.
- Want to know what happened next? DID’s guess re: a new platform was correct, but our pick was wrong. In the end, it was a good attempt, but not enough. The choices descried above may have won the contract, but in the end they lost both the contract and the larger program.
- Read all DID coverage of the ACS Program.
- Congressional Quarterly’s SpyTalk (Nov 20/08) – CIA Coverup Followed Another Spy Flight Mystery in Colombia. Was the RC-7’s 1999 loss in Colombia directly attributable to Col. James Hiett, the top U.S. counter-narcotics official in Colombia who was reportedly in the pay of drug lords?
- Boston Globe (Oct 21/05) – Army Plane Needed Despite Troubles
(This article originally ran on Sept. 9, 2005. It has been updated as the situation has developed.)