Increasing use of eyes and ears in the sky
Wide array of big and little ISR aircraft aid security.
Born of frustration
A seemingly insatiable appetite for ISR assets on the part of the Pentagon has created opportunity for a wide range of vendors and modification shops. Stevens Aviation at GYH (hangar shown here) is one of them, devoting considerable resources to ISR King Air conversions.
While Liberty Ship is good news for a long list of suppliers weathering an economic downturn that has exacted a terrible toll on the aerospace market, the program stems from frustration in the war zone.
Ground unit commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan have complained that they are simply not getting the real-time information they need to contend with an enemy able to strike at will, most often with IEDs, and then disappear anonymously into the civil population.
The US Air Force inventory of conventional fighters and bombers—from the F15, F16 and A10 to the B52, B1 and B2—was never intended for this type of low-intensity conflict, and seems poorly suited to it.
Even the vaunted F22 Raptor, the Air Force’s marquis program and shining hope for the future, is of dubious utility in the kind of urban guerrilla warfare US forces have faced since the Sep 11 attacks. Unmanned systems such as the General Atomics Reaper and Northrop Grumman Global Hawk offer exciting capabilities, including diverse sensor packages and long loiter times, and to many observers heralded an era of bloodless (at least on our side) remote-control war.
The initial UAV euphoria has subsided, however, as more is learned about their limitations. Payloads are still fairly light when compared with manned aircraft, and every UAV flight requires a lengthy logistics trail and hundreds of trained personnel in multiple locations.
The growing Reaper fleet, for example, remains subject to a complex and far-ranging command, control and communications infrastructure that sees them launched from forward bases near the fight, but then control reverts to trailer-bound pilots and sensor operators thousands of miles away, at Creech AFB north of Las Vegas NV.
Managed in this manner, Reaper’s ability to respond rapidly to a fluid tactical situation has been called into question. Critics also allege that the Predator class of drone is great for a “soda straw” view of a particular point target, but isn’t as good at providing a bird’s eye view of events as they transpire in larger area over an extended period of time.
The military calls this latter mission “change detection,” which is seen by many as the key to the anti-IED war. Global Hawk faces a similar dilemma. It’s a magnificent technological achievement that can span oceans at altitudes above FL 600, and reach Iraq or Afghanistan from Edwards or Beale AFB in California, with only a short technical stop at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
Once in theater, it can remain on station for hours, far beyond the reach of any known Al-Qaeda or Taliban countermeasures. Radar imagery, photographs, signals intelligence—Global Hawk can provide all of these and more.
The problem? Like the venerable Lockheed U2 it may one day replace, Global Hawk’s intelligence product tends to be strategic in nature, and thus destined for decision makers—presidents and generals—continents away from the battle area.
As a national asset, it appears doubtful that Global Hawk’s contribution is habitually reaching the sergeants and lieutenants tasked with leading US troops in combat.
Supply chain pressure
Given these conditions, it’s hardly a surprise that manned, fixed-wing ISR platforms able to be based close to the battle area are back in vogue. The big question now is whether the supply chain can meet a tight deadline—the Pentagon wants the last contracted MC12W delivered no later than Sep 2010.
Predictably, work on Project Liberty has been split between various erstwhile competitors. Hawker Beechcraft will provide the new King Air 350ER airframes, of course, but mission systems work has been assigned to L3 Communications in Greenville TX—a business unit known for its rebuilds of Lockheed P3 patrol aircraft.
Oddly, ATK, a supplier of rocket engines, machine guns and ammunition, among a range of products, was also granted a share of the King Air modification program. To make the Sep 2010 cutoff, defense giants Northrop Grumman and Boeing could each receive a portion of the completion work on the last batch of aircraft, according to industry sources.
“On a complex system such as this, we’ll typically partner with a systems integration house, like L3, which delivers the end item,” says Hawker Beechcraft’s Harrell. “We support them with any structural modifications the aircraft needs in order to house the mission system. The King Air 350ER seems like just the right size.
Certainly we could do a Beech 1900D-based ISR platform—it would be viable. The cutoff to larger airplanes is the need for a payload greater than 3500 lbs, including fuel, sensor suite and people.
The issue with the 1900D is that the airframe is no longer in production, so they would all be used and therefore have older avionics. The 350ERs, of course, are all [Rockwell Collins] Pro Line 21 airplanes.
The ER has the extended-range [fuel] tanks. So, above the base 350 with its large cabin, add 1700 lbs of fuel for a 2600-nm range capability. “The idea is to take off and be able to orbit 100 miles or so from the operating base for up to 8 hours, which is about the limit of the crew’s endurance.
Typically, they’ll fly from 15,000–25,000 ft altitude—this keeps them clear of small arms fire while providing the most efficient fuel burn. The Wescam 15 is still the core sensor but, across the ISR world, we’re tending to see a move toward HD [high-definition] versions of all the sensors.
As for the King Air 350ER, it’s proving very reliable in the desert, although we are working on improving its high and hot performance with derivative [Pratt & Whitney Canada] PT6A engines offering higher horsepower. “One thing we know for certain,” he says, “is that the pilots love the aircraft. They definitely prefer it to flying a UAV from inside a trailer.”
Paul Richfield is a pilot, aircraft mechanic and aerospace journalist. He is a former executive editor of Pro Pilot and has written for the magazine since 2001.
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