MARSS & More: Quasi-Civilian Spy Plane Services On the Front Lines

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RC-7B “Crazy Hawk” The US military has planes like F-22A stealth fighters that make a lot of news. It also has planes that make very little news, even though they play key roles in a number of conflicts around the world. One example is the RC-7B/EO-5B “Crazy Hawk”/ Airborne Reconnaissance Low aircraft, which use their […]

RC-7B “Crazy Hawk”

The US military has planes like F-22A stealth fighters that make a lot of news. It also has planes that make very little news, even though they play key roles in a number of conflicts around the world. One example is the RC-7B/EO-5B “Crazy Hawk”/ Airborne Reconnaissance Low aircraft, which use their short-field takeoff capabilities and array of imaging, signals collection, and radar sensors to monitor developments on the ground. The RC-7B made the news briefly in 1999 when one went down in Colombia, and again when the US military had to cancel the $8 billion ACS (Aerial Common Sensor) replacement program in 2006 and start over in 2008. Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq is well suited to planes like the Dash-7 derived RC-7Bs.

ACS’ cancellation, delay, and restructuring have left the Navy pursuing its own independent program. The US Army’s RC-12N Guardrail electronic intelligence aircraft are being refurbished to keep them current and in service until the ACS arrives. And the RC-7B fleet continues to receive additional help, via a parallel program called MARSS. It’s part of a trend that involves putting private ISR(Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance) planes on the front lines.

The MARSS Program



Aircraft bought under the MARSS program are fitted with survivability equipment, full motion video, signals collection (COMINT) gear, and military mission communications equipment, and may be fitted with other equipment by the government if desired. The resulting Dash-7 aircraft are broadly similar to the RC-7 fleet, but not exactly so. Other aircraft are reportedly in use by the program. For instance, Telford Aviation also lists aircraft like the Cessna 208 Caravan in its inventory, which has been used in a surveillance role over Iraq.

MARSS was first placed as a combatant commander Quick-Reaction Contract in 1999. The government actually owns the aircraft bought under the program, but they are flown and maintained by contractors on the government’s behalf. All personnel would, of course, require US Department of Defense security clearances. In contrast, the similar RC-7B fleet is operated by the US military.

Telford Aviation, Inc. has reportedly been involved with the MARSS program for the last several years, beginning before DID’s coverage begins in 2007.

Contracts and Key Events


Unless otherwise noted, the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command (CECOM) in Fort Monmouth, NJ manages these contracts.

Telford Aviation, Inc. (TAI) in Bangor, Maine is the contract recipient, unless otherwise indicated.

March 29/11: AirScan, Inc. in Titusville, FL receives a $50 million firm-fixed-price indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity contract forf” real-time over-target full-motion video from commercial manned airborne surveillance platforms for Iraq-wide air surveillance support.” Since its founding in 1989, AirScan has been involved in operations with a number of American government agencies. Operations over Macedonia used a Cessna Skymaster 337H equipped with a surveillance turret, as depicted on the front page of their web site. Work in Colombia led to a lawsuit, as mistaken identity led to a cluster bomb attack on Santo Domingo by the Colombian Air Force. Other operations abroad have been less visible, and the company has also worked for agencies like the US Forest Service.

Work on this contract will be performed in Victory Base Complex, Iraq, and the contracting period runs to Dec 31/11. The bid was solicited through the Internet, with 2 bids received by US Central Command’s Regional Contracting Center in Baghdad, Iraq (W91GDW-08-D-4012). Despite the implicit contracting date, this is the first public announcement by DoD of an AirScan contract.

Dec 8/09: A $12.3 million firm-fixed-price contract to provide MARSS – Canada Systems integration and logistics support for 2 King Air 300 commercial aircraft provided by Canada. This effort is currently funded at 49% of the not-to-exceed price, until the contract can be finalized. Work is to be performed in Hagerstown, MD (75%), and Afghanistan (25%), with an estimated completion date of June 15/11. One sole source bid was solicited with one bid received by the CECOM Acquisition Center in Fort Monmouth, NJ, acting on behalf of its foreign customer (W12P7T-07-C-W009).

Oct 9/09: A $6.6 million cost-plus fixed-fee time-and-materials contract to standardize the cockpits for multi-sensor airborne reconnaissance and surveillance systems XI-XVIII, to support the National Guard operating in Operating Enduring Freedom. Work is to be performed in Hagerstown, MD, with an estimated completion date of Jan 31/10. One bid was received (W15P7T-07-C-W009).

Jan 2/09: A $36.2 million time-and-materials contract to continue MARSS operational support for CENTCOM forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the CENTCOM Area of Operations. Work will be performed at Hagerstown, MD with an estimated completion date of June 15/09; a sole-source bid was solicited, with one bid received (W15P7T-07-W009)

This funding will use FY 2009 US Army Operations and Maintenance funds. The $36.2 million funds 49% of the unfinalized contract’s total not-to-exceed total of $73.9 million. The rest will be provided later in FY 2009, per the terms of the finalized contract.

Aug 29/08: Telford Aviation Inc. in Bangor, ME received a $36.6 million, unfinalized time-and-material contract. The award covers components of the Multi Sensor Airborne Reconnaissance Surveillance System. Work will be performed in Hagerstown, MD, with an estimated completion date of June 6/09. Bids were solicited sole source (W15P7T-07-C-W009).

June 24/08: Telford Aviation Inc. in Bangor, Maine received a $7.4 million time and materials contract for DeHavilland Dash-7 aircraft to be designated as Multi-Sensor Airborne Reconnaissance Surveillance Systems.

Work will be performed in Hagerstown, MD and is expected to be complete by Jan 31/09. One bid was solicited on May 29/08 (W15P7T-07-C-W009).

May 2/08: Telford Aviation Inc. in Bangor, Maine receives a $26.4 million time-and-materials contract for 9 months of continued MARSS support. Work will be performed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is expected to be completed by Jan 31/09. One bid was solicited on March 11/08 (W15P7T-07-C-W009).

Aug 22/07: Telford Aviation in Dothan, AL receives an $11.2 million time and materials contract for MARSS operational support. Work will be performed in Dothan, AL and is expected to be complete by April 30/08. This was a sole source contract initiated on July 17/07 (W15P7T-07-C-W009).

Additional Readings

Return of Lower Tech ISR Platforms

* DID – Task Force ODIN: In the Kingdom of the Blind… A response from a US Army spokesman indicated that modified C-12s and other aircraft may also be involved with MARSS. At present, however, potential connections with Project ODIN are suggestive rather than proven.

* StrategyPage (Dec 19/08) – Afghanistan Attacked By The Math Machine. Notes that math-based pattern analysis also played a big role in Task Force ODIN’s success.

* NY Times (June 22/08) – At Odds With Air Force, Army Adds Its Own Aviation Unit. Covers Project ODIN, which is spreading to Afghanistan.

* Pentagon DVIDS (Sept 20/07) – Task Force ODIN Using innovative technology to support ground forces. Includes C-12 MARSS-II aircraft.

* Edwards AFB, via Google Cache (My 22/06) – Engineer takes flight testing to fight, wins award. Discusses the C-12 Horned Owl variant, part of Project ODIN.

* Aviation Week (May 8/05) – Rise in Suicide Attacks in Iraq Propels Search for Better IED Detection. Includes details re: the C-12R Horned Owl aircraft, with ventral APY-8 Lynx radars and electro-optical sensors.

Other Private ISR Firms

As some of the links below reveal, Telford Aviation is not the only private aerial surveillance contractor out there. To this list, add Xe (Blackwater).

* AirScan, Inc. Founded in 1984 by a pair of retired USAF personnel.

* Flight International (Oct 10/09) – Lockheed sees new market for leased spyplanes. They’re currently experimenting with a Gulfstream-III business jet, but the package could be installed in any comparable plane. They took the next step in 2011, introducing the

* Flight International (Oct 8/09) – Private Eyes in the Sky: The ‘Blackwaters’ of airborne ISR. They mean manned aerial surveillance. Trimble adds Avenge Inc. and Dynamic Aviation to the list.

* Aviation Week (Oct 7/09) – L-3 Building Its Private ISR Force: Constant Hawk Afghanistan. Uses 4 King Air 350ERs modified with 96 megapixel cameras. L-3 employs the pilots, intelligence analysis and support, and it owns the hardware and ground station. Constant Hawk – Iraq is already running; Constant Hawk – Afghanistan is getting ready. Persistent wide-area surveillance can also be used to “run back the tape” from an explosion, and trace the routes taken by the people who planted it.

* (July 10/09) – Team Offers King Air Surveillance Platforms. Refers to Aerial Surveillance Systems, Inc.’s SkyEye 350, based on the King Air 350 platform that has received similar modifications for use by the Iraqi Air Force and USAF (MC-12W).

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