Army Lt. Gen. Robert Lennox yesterday provided the House Armed Services Committee with a welcome clarification as to where the service stands on plans for a much-needed electronic reconnaissance aircraft. The Army finds itself confronted with a rapidly expanding array of hostile emitters in war zones that seek to use the electromagnetic spectrum to defeat U.S. forces. Efforts to develop an aircraft that could detect, identify and target these emerging threats were set back in 2006 when an earlier program had to be canceled due to contractor errors, but the Army is now back on track with a cheaper solution called EMARSS. However, internal mis-cues led Gen. Lennox to make a confusing public comment earlier this month about whether the Air Force or Army would operate the future system, so his firm statement yesterday that the Army had not changed its position on how the vital aircraft should be operated is a relief.
The Army has some tough decisions to make about programs like EMARSS, because it isn’t likely to get anywhere near the amount of money it needs to modernize its battle-weary forces. It recently killed both of its next-generation air defense systems due to budget difficulties, which means it will have to depend even more on the Air Force in future years for protection against overhead threats. However, turning over the airborne electronic reconnaissance mission to the Air Force would be a big mistake because that service will never be as responsive to soldiers under fire as an organic Army organization would be, and the Air Force’s existing plane for the mission is a mess. The plane, called Project Liberty, can’t deal with a wide array of emerging electronic threats, can’t encrypt sensitive communications, can’t generate power to meet new mission requirements, and can’t provide space for additional equipment. In other words, the plane is maxed out at a time when it’s obvious new capabilities will need to be added.
The EMARSS design that Boeing is developing uses a similar commercial airframe to save money, but replaces the cobbled-together Project Liberty system with an integrated, open architecture approach that is more agile, precise and versatile. It will be able to cope with a much wider array of threats, it will be able to stay in the air almost twice as long, it will be better connected with Army users on the ground, and it will have both power and space to spare. The only reason the Army is arguing about who should operate it is that the service is strapped for cash, and when the prospect of billions of dollars in budget cuts is looming, it’s hard to focus on arcane missions like battlefield signals intelligence.
But this is one mission area where Army leaders need to think hard about the long run, because the electromagnetic spectrum is becoming an arena of continuous combat. The Air Force is real good at providing kinetic solutions to battlefield challenges, but its plans for commanding the electromagnetic spectrum in future conflicts are incomplete at best (the Navy is the only service that seems to fully grasp the challenge). If the Air Force isn’t postured to provide adequate electronic support to its own forces in the future, how likely is it to keep up with the needs of other services? The Army needs its own, organic capability to cope with the evolving threats on the electromagnetic spectrum — a capability that can provide actionable, tailored intelligence directly to troops as quickly as possible. EMARSS looks like the only solution available to meet that need, so keeping it on track and in the Army seems like the most sensible outcome.
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