After 13 years at war and an emergency doubling in the size of the U.S. Army's special mission intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) fleet, the service is finally pondering a reconciliation of its specialized air forces with an eye toward retaining less than half of the platforms operational today.

As U.S. forces exit Afghanistan, Army planners are taking an opportunity to rationalize the fleet for the next big military activity. The swift pace of events in Iraq and Afghanistan—including insurgent use of new and different improvised explosive devices—drove the Pentagon to quickly field a host of different platforms, sensor packages and processing capabilities. The sole requirement was to field systems and field them fast; money was little object in the past decade. The Overseas Contingency Operation fund was regarded as nearly a blank check to press into service quickly whatever technologies were needed. As a result, some of the aircraft were purchased, some were modified, some were government-owned and contractor-operated, and in some cases the Army simply purchased the services through a contractor-owned, contractor-operated fleet.

Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Army program of record was for 47 Guardrail and eight Airborne Reconnaissance Lows; the ultimate plan was to buy what was called the Aerial Common Sensor (ACS). The Army has long sought a single platform to ease training, maintenance and supply and collect multiple types of intelligence. But the missionized Embraer ERJ 145, to be outfitted with sensors and processing equipment by Lockheed Martin, cratered in 2006 owing to poor design and spiraling costs. Its follow-on—the Enhanced Medium-Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (Emarss), won by Boeing—has been only moderately more successful. Despite integration challenges, the Army is buying the first four development aircraft as well as two more, hardly a full fleet. However, as ACS died, commanders began to turn to full-motion-video (FMV) to prosecute targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. Emarss addresses that need by incorporating that capability as well as other sensors, including communications-intelligence collectors. The Guardrail aircraft to be retained long-term also will be outfitted with FMV balls by fiscal 2017, says Terry Mitchell, director of future planning for the Army's deputy chief of staff for ISR.

At the height of Iraq and Afghanistan operations, the Army's special mission, fixed-wing ISR fleet swelled to 110 manned platforms, Mitchell says. Some are one- or two-of-a-kind types that have employed highly specialized sensors, such as hyperspectral imaging, wide-area airborne surveillance, full-motion video, foliage penetration, and mapping and tracking of “dismounts” or individuals on foot.

During the war, the Army proved its ability to “surge” to quickly field such capabilities, says a defense official speaking on background. Thus, there is no need to retain such a large fleet—especially one so diverse with varied training and maintenance needs—in peacetime.

Ultimately, the Army plans for an “enduring” fleet of 52 aircraft, based on three different platforms, says Mitchell.

These will be nine ARLs that are being shifted from the Dash 7 to Dash 8 platform and outfitted with a more modular architecture and sensors; 14 so-called RC-12Xs, the newest of the type based on the Super King Air 200; and 24 “Mission Configurable Multi-Intelligence” aircraft based on the King Air 350ER. These will include the six Boeing Emarss aircraft as well as up to eight Air Force MC-12W Project Liberties to be updated to an “Emarss light” configuration. The remainder of the platforms will come from the best of the Army's quick-reaction-capability aircraft—those rapidly fielded for the war. Some of the Air Force's Project Liberty aircraft on the King Air 350ER are going to U.S. Special Operations Command. This is a significant culling of type models; at one time the Army flew six different Guardrail variants, Mitchell says. Guardrail is optimized for signals intelligence collection and is critical to operations in the Korean Peninsula.

Because the Project Liberty aircraft were quickly assembled by the Air Force and L-3 Communications during the war, they lack the growth capabilities offered by the Army's Emarss design, Mitchell says, but they will provide ample capability for the time being.

The ultimate goal is to retain the best sensors from the wars so they can be quickly outfitted onto the aircraft as needed, Mitchell says.

“After the war, we will have a lot of sensor capabilities you would not have seen, except that we had a war” driving technology, he says.

This fleet should be in place around the fiscal 2017 timeframe, Mitchell says. Reducing the number of platforms and platform types will allow for reduced cost in the near term, he notes.

The Army is hoping to streamline its processing, exploitation and dissemination—or ground station—architecture as well. As the urgent-need fleets were fielded in the war, unique ground stations also were quickly fielded. While suitable for quick-reaction capabilities, Mitchell says, the enduring fleet will need to wire into the Distributed Common Ground Station to allow the intelligence collected to be shared, processed and dispatched in a more networked fashion, rather than relying on point-to-point, stovepiped ground stations.

If the Army is able to achieve this fleet plan, it will be the first time in more than a decade it has managed to move forward as desired. The notorious failure of the ACS plan harmed the service's credibility—as well as that of Lockheed Martin as a reliable integrator. The program was marred from the outset by the attempts to cram too much kit onto too small a platform.

This projected ISR fleet—culled to less than half its size—will operate in concert with the Army's unmanned fleet of MQ-1C Gray Eagles, manufactured by General Atomics, and Northrop Grumman MQ-15 Hunters.

Meanwhile, the service is also reconciling its rotary-wing fleet with a plan to retire all single-engine Bell Helicopter OH-58Ds and TH-67s, which will be replaced with twin-engine Boeing AH-64E Apaches and Airbus Group UH-72A Lakotas. Much like the ISR shift, the Army's rotary-wing plan calls for reducing the number of type models in the fleet. By eliminating an entire type model, service leaders say they gain the most savings, thanks to the termination of an entire maintenance/training regime.

This fleet is expected to operate through the mid-2020s. Beyond that, Mitchell and his team are looking at options. Ultimately, the military hopes to increase the number of persistent platforms—those that can stay aloft for longer periods of time collecting intelligence. This could point to the use of unmanned platforms. Or it could simply capitalize on the inevitable reduction in weight of sensors now being used. Army officials do not intend to fly large-platform ISR collectors such as USAF's, which are Boeing 707-based, or the Navy's 737-based P-8. But miniaturization could allow for fielding more sensors on a platform or for using smaller platforms.

Mitchell says he also is focused on improving the processing, exploitation and dissemination capabilities of the Army, including linking with those of other services.