As the plans to pull forces out of Afghanistan and sharpen its focus on activities in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. Army has yet to craft a clear road map for its future tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) needs.
The service is, however, firm on a new program that would act as a linchpin for its future ISR force structure, despite prime contractormissing a deadline to deploy the system within 18 months of contract award, which would have been late last year.
Not unlike the U.S. Air Force, the Army pressed various platforms and mission systems into service to satisfy urgent intelligence-collection needs in Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in a diverse collection of small fleets of purpose-built aircraft, each requiring specialized maintenance and training, and draining resources. Both services are looking at the forthcoming drawdown of operations in Afghanistan as an opportunity to reset the composition of their ISR forces for a new set of operational challenges, including the long distances and diverse potential adversaries that operate sophisticated and integrated air defenses in the Pacific region.
ISR experts in multiple services and industry say the Defense Department must craft a cohesive plan ahead for ISR collection, including platforms and sensors. Such a review should address the services' overlaps and gaps in roles and missions, some of which were ignored during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as commanders clamored for as many collectors as possible.
Army acquisition chief Heidi Shyu acknowledges that the service has yet to reconcile its own fleets. But the composition of the Army's future tactical ISR force rides largely on the outcome of the Boeing-led development of a replacement for the Army's Guardrail aircraft, called the Enhanced Medium-Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (Emarss).
The Army is awaiting testing of four Emarss aircraft before funding integration of the signals- and imagery-intelligence collectors onto two more platforms. Shyu conceded at last month's annual Association of the U.S. Army symposium here that there have been “stumbles” in the program, including a delay to the 18-month plan for fielding due to a protest from losing bidders.
The first three developmental aircraft have been ferried to Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., where they are undergoing sensor calibration and Boeing testing. The fourth aircraft in the development program is nearly completed at Beechcraft's Wichita facility; Emarss is housed on new-build King Air 350ER aircraft.
The Army has purchased another two King Air 350ERs, and integration of the mission systems will follow, pending successful developmental testing, says Sofia Bledsoe, a service spokeswoman.
Boeing funded risk-reduction work on the program during the protest period, and an Emarss risk-reduction prototype is undergoing trials to garner ansupplemental type certification, which is expected early next year, says Becky Yeamans, a Boeing spokeswoman.
Thus far during Boeing's testing, the communications-intelligence sensors—capable of intercepting signals emitted by radios and cellular phones—have been calibrated and the mission equipment architecture has been “successfully checked out end-to-end,” Yeamans says. Emarss has completed more than 100 sorties and 400 flight hours.
“This is a very important platform for us,” Shyu said last month. “It has stumbled a little bit, [but] we got back on track. It is making good progress now, [and] Boeing knows that it is very high on my watch list, and they are now executing very well.”
Completion of testing and more sales would be a boon for Boeing, which won Emarss as it is working to establish a better footprint in the tactical ISR market. Boeing conducted testing activities on its own King Air 350ER for the secretive “Yellow Jacket” ISR collector, though officials declined to outline a customer for the system or its sensor suite, aside from acknowledging it could handle measurement and signatures intelligence, as well as sigint and comint missions.
That prototype is now being dedicated to trials for an offering to allies called the Reconfigurable Airborne Multi-Int ISR System (Ramis), which can collect various types of intelligence simultaneously, including sigint/comint; electro-optical/infrared and full-motion video; wide-area intelligence (with a latency of a few frames per second); and a radar for moving-target surveillance, says Mike Ferguson, a business development official for Boeing Electronics and Mission Systems. The earliest possible customer is Saudi Arabia, with Canada also looking at a procurement in the future.
Ferguson estimates the international market for a Ramis type of aircraft to be as high as 90 tails.