Versatile design and impressive performance are key to meeting critical mission demands
Suitably customized business aircraft serve effectively and reliably in diverse special roles.
By Don Van Dyke
ATP/Helo/CFII, F28, Bell 222.
Pro Pilot Canadian Technical Editor
Geopolitical tensions, global challenges, and revolutionary technologies drive complex aerospace market dynamics. While most national economies are currently depressed, defense procurement remains a strong market driver since it responds principally to threats and political forces.
Special mission aircraft
Mission-critical organizations and military forces depend on original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), technology innovators, and system integrators to provide aircraft for special tasks and goals. A variety of business jets and turboprops meeting appropriate size, performance, range, and endurance requirements can be configured as special mission aircraft (SMA).
SMA often feature innovative and technologically advanced designs. Others perform chiefly as business aircraft, but have reversibly customized interiors and external hardpoints. SMA certification standards and procurement guidelines were discussed in Pro Pilot (Apr 2018, p 54), and an overview of selected SMA was presented in Apr 2019 (p 38).
Special missions serve military (often highly classified), civil (public safety, service, paramilitary), and research & development (R&D) sectors in roles identified briefly in the table on page 39.
Special missions require tailored planning, design, support, and, most importantly, an objective-oriented approach. Aircraft for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), inflight refueling, and infiltration/exfiltration missions are in particularly high demand.
The SMA market, currently valued at $13.5 billion, involves more than 2000 aircraft. It is forecast to grow to $18.5 billion by 2025 and $30.7 billion by 2028. The largest market segment by value is military aviation.
Key factors influencing SMA market development include revolutionary technical innovations; sustainable propulsion; increasingly diverse threats; lack of expertise and trained pilots; regulatory and ethical concerns; and procurement, modification, and operating costs.
Improved operating performance, enhanced avionics (digital technologies, sensors, communications, multiple integrated platforms), and shrinking form-factors encourage the trend of ever smaller aircraft to engage in special missions.
The SMA market will continue to evolve with a focus on business aircraft as the platforms most suitable for modification and employment in specialist roles. The main procurement requirements will be for speed (including renewed interest in supersonic capability), range, endurance (loiter), payload, and customizable interior design, all at reasonable cost.
The capabilities, facilities, and cabin form factors of long-range business aircraft like the Bombardier Global 7500, Dassault Falcon 8X, and Gulfstream 700 will permit ever greater mission flexibility and accommodation. Developments in sensor technology and artificial intelligence (AI) will encourage exploration of concepts such as autonomous or remotely-crewed aircraft, including deployment as loyal wingmen.
The future of the SMA sector rests on its ability to continue fulfilling user needs with creativity and ever greater capability, reliability, repeatability, and quality. The reward for vigilance is continued security.
Don Van Dyke is professor of advanced aerospace topics at Chicoutimi College of Aviation – CQFA Montréal. He is an 18,000-hour TT pilot and instructor with extensive airline, business and charter experience on both airplanes and helicopters. A former IATA ops director, he has served on several ICAO panels. He is a Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society and is a flight operations expert on technical projects under UN administration.