Army manned surveillance plane gets fresh start

The Army has restarted its program to field a manned battlefield surveillance platform to support forces at the brigade level and below.

The Army has relaunched its program to deploy a manned airborne intelligence and reconnaissance gathering platform. Working on a tight development schedule, the effort will turn more than 30 commercial turboprop aircraft into flying sensor platforms that will support ground forces by searching out and pinpointing enemy activity.

When it is fully operational, the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS) will provide a persistent capability to detect, locate, classify, identify and trace surface targets with a high degree of timeliness and accuracy whether in the day or at night and in near-all-weather conditions.

The aircraft fills a needed operational gap where brigade combat teams and smaller units require tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data, said Army Lt. Col. Dean Hoffman, EMARSS program manager, at a media briefing July 22.

Awarded to a team headed by Boeing, the program was delayed due to a complaint after the initial contract was awarded in November 2010. However, Hoffman stressed that the program is now back on track. A Government Accountability Office review and an Army reassessment found that Boeing was still the best firm to carry out the effort and reinstated the program on June 16. When work resumed, the EMARSS program held an initial kickoff meeting from July 12 through July 14 to establish delivery and development schedules, he said.

Hoffman noted that a key program requirement is to have an operational platform within 18 months of the contract award. Even taking the stop-work delay for the complaint into account, this is a very short turnaround time for a Defense Department program. “When you’re thinking of a program of record, it’s usually a couple of years,” he said.

The major Army goal behind EMARSS is to develop, field and sustain an aerial multi-intelligence platform. Although it is different from the now-cancelled Aerial Common Sensor, Hoffman said that his program is building on previous efforts to get the system ready. Because military budgets are shrinking, especially supplemental funding for field operations, the program must have a sustainable fundamental budget baseline going forward, he said.

Flexibility is a key design consideration for the aircraft’s sensor suite. Built around a Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350ER turboprop, the entire platform will have to be adaptable and feature a plug-and-play capability for its systems. “It has to be modular,” Hoffman said. “We can’t make this a one-off platform that can’t grow as technology and capabilities grow.”

Balancing between current operational needs and future technological improvements and developments is an important part of EMARSS, Hoffman said. Program engineers will take these requirements into consideration when they plan the location and size of the systems and equipment racks in the aircraft.

The EMARSS program is working on its systems integration at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., where it will have a working mockup located near the Distributed Common Ground System laboratory. Because the DCGS will be the platform’s main data link, he said that all software developments at the DCGS lab will be shared with the EMRSS program.

The EMARSS sensor suite consists of an electro-optical and infrared system and signals intelligence gathering equipment. All of the sensor electronics are operational systems that have already been flown on other platforms, Hoffman said.

The EMARSS is intended to provide commanders with a mission overwatch capability to support forces in the field by detecting enemy communications with its signals intelligence package and locating their positions with its electro optical sensors. The aircraft’s plug-and-play capability will also allow it to be configured for other missions such as area assessment and surveillance, he said.

The initial $323 million contract calls for four aircraft, two prototypes and a limited production run of two additional platforms. If the program successfully passes a Milestone C development decision, the Army could acquire and produce up to an additional 28 more aircraft between 2013 and 2014, Hoffman said. The initial operational capability for EMARSS is scheduled for 2013, with the first four platforms being deployed operationally in theater.

To get things rolling, Hoffman said that the program already has a software readiness review scheduled for August. Boeing has bought a King Air 350 with its own funds, which it is using as a flight test bed. The company will begin installing radar domes and antennas in August and September, he said.