OPERATIONAL SUPPORT AIRCRAFT
Electronics special mission aircraft
Corporate aircraft in military guise for sensitive government business.
By Mike Potts
Royal Air Force Bombardier Sentinel R1 (Global Express/ASTOR) takes off at the start of an aerial demonstration. In a cost-conscious environment, business aircraft are increasingly being chosen to for duty in the military-with modifications to fit increasingly sophisticated missions.
Outwardly, they look pretty much like their civilian counterparts, but with a few extra bulges here and there that attest to their unique roles and their military status. Most electronic special-mission aircraft today are painted in a flat gray color which helps to reduce their radar signature and gives them a slightly sinister appearance on the ramp.
Increasingly, electronic special mission aircraft are based on business aircraft-both turboprops and jets-and this has created a significant market segment for the business aircraft manufacturers. Bombardier, Cessna, Dassault, Embraer, Gulfstream and Hawker Beechcraft are all eager participants in this lucrative market, and for good reason.
Beyond the profit from the initial sale, delivery of these aircraft is frequently accompanied by maintenance contracts which create an ongoing source of revenue for the manufacturers. Termed contractor logistics support (CLS) by the US government, these contracts involve both parts and maintenance, and over time can even exceed the value of the aircraft.
Electronic special mission aircraft are really a subset of the overall market for business aircraft-based government/military airplanes. Government missions are wide-ranging, spanning the gamut from routine transport-not significantly different from how the airplanes are used in the civilian market-to the most exotic military surveillance activities.
USAF operates Cessna Citation IIs under the designation OT47B, outfitted for antidrug missions. The OT47B fuselage includes a 20-in stretch over its civilian counterpart.
Typical missions include intelligence gathering, surveillance/maritime patrol, reconnaissance, photographic survey, search and rescue, flight inspection, utility/cargo transport, air ambulance and training. Many of these activities involve some kind of electronic sensing or data-gathering equipment.
Specific details of some of the more exotic electronic missions can be hard to come by. In many cases, the manufacturers are bound by contract from discussing even the general nature of some of the electronic missions, and in some cases are not permitted to even identify specific customers.
The US Dept of Defense (DoD), a major customer, is equally mum about missions it considers classified. The general nature of the electronic mission isn't hard to fathom, however-it's trying to get a line on what the bad guys are up to before they can put a plan into action.
Antiterrorism and counterdrug activities are major priorities for the US government, as well as many others. So is watching the coastlines for intruders or polluters, and keeping an eye on foreign governments deemed to be unfriendly.
Experienced providers For business aircraft builders the government/military market is nothing new. Gulfstream Dir of Corporate Communications Robert Baugniet says approximately 160 Gulfstreams-or about 10% of the total fleet-have been delivered into this market over the years, to both the US and international customers, although he is not at liberty to identify many of them.
Derek Gilmour, Bombardier's VP of sales and administration for aircraft services, specialized and amphibious, notes that Bombardier Aerospace is actually the amalgamation of 4 separate aircraft companies-Canadair, de Havilland Canada, Learjet and Short Brothers -all of whom have a substantial history of selling aircraft to government and military organizations around the world.
Hawker Beechcraft traces its first military special mission sale back to 1939. Cessna's first government/military sales came at about the same time. Dassault's was even earlier, starting with aircraft component sales to the French government in WWI.
Embraer has less history in special mission applications, but is still no stranger to the business. Today, business aircraft are being pressed into military/special mission applications more than ever for one primary reason-money.
Brazil's air force operates Embraer EMB145s in 2 electronic special mission configurations. (top) EMB145RS remote sensing version. (Bottom) EMB145SA airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) surveillance aircraft. These aircraft are used to patrol the Amazon basin.
It costs significantly less to adapt an existing airframe to a special mission than it would to design an all-new aircraft based precisely on the government's mission. "In years gone by, the military mostly acquired specialized aircraft, with no commercial footing," says Bombardier's Gilmour.
"Today, no one can afford that any more. The expense to replace an airplane like the Lockheed P3 would be prohibitive. Instead they look for a commercial solution-an aircraft designed to a high standard, with triple or quadruple redundancy, that can be maintained to commercial standards by commercial mechanics, and an aircraft that be maintained easily on a worldwide basis."
The military term for these products is commercial off-the-shelf (COTS). They are less expensive to acquire than airplanes-like the Rockwell B1 bomber-designed especially for a specific mission. COTS airplanes and their systems are typically FAA certified and maintained to FAA Part 145 repair standards. In practice, "off-the-shelf" is a relative term.
The airplanes the US government buys are rarely exactly like their civilian counterparts. Instead they are usually modified to meet the requirements of the mission the government has in mind. Sometimes these modifications are simple-structural beef-ups to landing gear for an airplane intended for a training mission, for example.
Other times the changes might be more complex, such as reconfiguring the flightdeck or relocating systems to accomplish some design goal. This practice of modifying the product has caused some observers to complain that the government doesn't really understand the term "off-the-shelf"-but even the cost of redesign and recertification is far less than the investment required for an all-new design.