Aerial Comman Sensor

Lockheed Martin wins the ACS programme

ACS Logo

On 3 Aug 04 the US Army Communications Electronics Command awarded Lockheed Martin Corporation a $879 million contract for the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase of the Aerial Common Sensor (ACS) programme. The ACS programme will eventually produce a single next generation ISR and target identification system to replace the US Army’s RC-12 Guardrail Common Sensor and RC-7/EO-5B Airborne Reconnaissance Low aircraft, together with the US Navy’s P-3 Orion. The contract has a potential value of over $7 billion over the expected 20-year life of the programme.

Gulfstream EC-37SM

The Lockheed Martin entry beat a consortium of Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics Gulfstream who offered a system based on the Gulfstream G450 that would probably have been very similar to their proposed EC-37SM. Although the G450 did have a longer range and higher operational ceiling than the Lockheed entry, the acquisition and operating costs were much higher and in the end, this was probably the biggest factor in the eventual decision.

Embraer EJR-145 ACS

Under the SDD contract Lockheed Martin will combine and develop the capabilities of the current systems on the three aircraft it is replacing into a single airborne Reconnsissance, Intelligence, Surveillance and Target Acquisition (RISTA) system based on the Embraer EJR-145 aircraft. Lockheed Martin are contracted to deliver five mission ready aircraft by 2006, then if the trials are successful, a follow-on low rate initial production contract will probably follow in 2007 with a full rate production contract in 2009. The basic commercial Embraer EJR-145 will be militarised and modified to increase its range and payload and all the aircraft will be assembled at a new factory at Cecil Field, Jacksonville, Florida.

The Lockheed Martin ACS design features an integrated sensor- computer that will pinpoint threats in real-time, fusing together intelligence from manned, unmanned and space based ISR systems. The ACS sensors incorporate a mission-tailorable multisource suite of sensors that include Signals Intelligence (SIGINT), Image Intelligence (IMINT), Measurement and Signatures Intelligence (MASINT) and Moving Target Indicator (MTI). The IMINT suite includes Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR/Ground Moving Target Indicator (GMTI) radar and an electro-optical (EO) and Infra-Red (IR) sensor. Current plans call for 34 aircraft being built for the US Army and a further 19 for the US Navy.

As the ACS programme progressed additional capabilities were demanded of the platform which necessitated additional equipment in an already crowded airframe – eventually something had to give. In mid-January 2006 the Army ended Lockheed Martin’s contract for the design and development of the ACS, having decided that Lockheed Martin’s choice of aircraft platform, the Embraer ERJ-145 business jet, was simply too small to carry the revised electronics package. Lockheed Martin had actually been warned by the US Army in September 2005 that the Embraer ERJ-145 was likely to be too small and asked them to propose other options. Lockheed Martin suggested switching to the larger Bombardier Global Express, however, the US Army decided that the aircraft was an integral part of the overall program and remained to be convinced that this change would actually work.

Boeing P-8A SIGINT ACS proposal

I doubt whether this decision has really surprised many of those who have followed the ACS programme. If ever there was a case of attempting to fit a quart into a pint pot this programme was it. Attempting to amalgamate the capabilities contained separately in the Army’s RC-7B Airborne Reconnaisance Low and RC-12 Guardrail, as well as the US Navy’s EP-3E Aries II in an airframe not much larger than the RC-7B was always going to be extremely challenging, to put it mildly. In a new platform that had to be ‘all things to all men’ for the next 20 years, the temptation to keep adding new requirements was always going to be too difficult to resist. The ACS programme is still going ahead, but has been renamed the Airborne Common Sensors programme and other larger aircraft platforms, such as the Gulfstream G550, the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737, will now be considered. With this in mind, Boeing have already announced plans for a SIGINT version of their 737-based P-8A MMA planned for the US Navy. Given the considerable additional room and the commonality this platform would provide with the P-8A MMA, I would imagine this option will eventually become the preferred option.