The core of information-age warfare is a cluster of activities that military planners call intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). ISR is focused mainly on collecting information about enemy capabilities and intentions, a process that usually entails some form of electronic eavesdropping or sensing. During this decade, the Pentagon will begin replacing every one of the ISR aircraft that it acquired during the Cold War, at a cost eventually exceeding $100 billion. With technology and threats changing rapidly, a lot of controversial decisions are likely to be made — mostly behind closed doors.
One such decision came last week in secret Pentagon budget deliberations, when military-intelligence czar Stephen Cambone told the Air Force he wants to kill its prized Multisensor Command and Control Aircraft, the service’s high-priority replacement for its AWACS and Joint STARS radar planes. Cambone thinks that a Space-Based Radar will provide better tracking of ground vehicles, and that any airborne sensing for that mission can be accomplished by unmanned aircraft (probably Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk).
A second such decision will come in the new year, when the Army picks a design for its Aerial Common Sensor, a fleet of battlefield planes that will monitor enemy communications and other emitters. The military calls these highly classified missions signals intelligence or “SIGINT,” since they involve interception of electronic transmissions to divine the capabilities, locations and plans of adversaries. Aerial Common Sensor is doubly important because the Navy has decided to use the design the Army chooses as a successor for its own land-based SIGINT aircraft, the EP-3 Aries II. That’s the same super-secret airframe that China held hostage on Hainan Island several years ago.
You’d think that the winner of this competition would be determined by which team best satisfies arcane technical specifications for the collection and processing of photons. That’s what Aerial Common Sensor is supposed to do. In this case, though, the outcome could be driven by something more obvious: the airplane carrying all those fancy electronics. The companies competing to provide the electronics — Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — are global leaders in digital sensors and information technology. Both will come up with solutions that meet or exceed government needs. But the difference between the planes they have chosen to host their solutions is like night and day.
One is a modified Brazilian regional jet, an airframe best known for its low purchase price. The other is a General Dynamics/Gulfstream 450, a top-of-the-line business jet best known for its performance. Gulfstreams have much greater speed, thrust, range, endurance, and reliability than regional jets. They climb faster and fly higher. They have more internal space and less noise. In every significant performance parameter from survivability to flexibility to growth potential, they are superior planes. But they cost more up front, even though differential performance, fuel and maintenance charges may even out costs over the lifetime of the program. So the outcome of this critical ISR competition could come down to one simple question: what matters more to the Army and Navy, near-term cost or long-term performance?
Find Archived Articles: