Although better known for operating helicopters, the Army’s aviation community maintains a small fleet of fixed-wing planes for conducting intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance. Fixed-wing aircraft typically can loiter over areas of interest longer than rotorcraft, fly higher, and carry more gear. The service has recently launched a series of initiatives to modernize the fixed-wing fleet with a mix of manned and unmanned aircraft.
Aviation modernization has been a bright spot in Army acquisition over the past decade, with mature rotorcraft like the Apache, Black Hawk and Chinook smoothly transitioning to more capable configurations. The main exception has been the search for a next-generation armed reconnaissance helicopter, which has seen repeated program cancellations. That troubled effort should raise warning flags as the service now moves to recapitalize fixed-wing aircraft with similar missions.
What went wrong in the helicopter program was that the Army tried to buy a system that did too many cutting-edge things with its on-board equipment, and when that effort collapsed then tried to field a low-cost replacement using a commercial, “off-the-shelf” helicopter. The second attempt failed too, which is why the service is now gearing up for a third try. Maybe there’s a lesson here for how it should go about developing replacements for its aging fixed-wing assets, starting with the nine planes planned for the Airborne Reconnaissance Low mission.
Airborne Reconnaissance Low, or ARL, currently is performed by a decrepit collection of DeHavilland Dash-7 turboprops — propeller planes — that the Army bought second-hand in the early 1990s to collect imagery and signals intelligence in Latin America. The concept worked out so well that the planes have subsequently been used to great effect everywhere from the Balkans to Southwest Asia to the Korean Peninsula. They are extremely useful in finding, fixing and identifying diverse threats, especially since being upgraded with additional equipment such as a ground-tracking radar.
But those upgrades became a mixed blessing as the airframes aged, because they are now so overloaded with equipment that they take nearly an hour to climb to their operating altitude of 18,000 feet. With all that weight on board, the planes can’t circle above areas of interest as long as desired, and if one of their four engines goes out they have to descend to 13,000 feet. What that means in practical terms is that the planes can’t fly in Eastern Afghanistan or the Western Andes, because they might stray too close to mountain tops.
Everybody agrees new aircraft are needed to accomplish the ARL mission. Where the disagreements start is with what kind of replacement aircraft is required, and how its payload should be configured. The Army apparently wants to buy some more second-hand planes, specifically the Dash-8-Q300 evolved from the Dash-7. That sounds like a bad idea because the proposed replacement plane has been out of production for years and thus will soon become as hard to maintain as the ancient Dash-7s. It also doesn’t have as much growth potential as the larger Q400 that remains in production.
And then there’s the payload. If there’s one thing the Army should have learned from its efforts to recapitalize recon helicopters, it’s that there’s a limit to how much aircraft can carry. Airframes like ARL can do a lot of different things, but configuring them to carry enough equipment so they can do everything at the same time is costly and complicated. Carrying around unneeded equipment wastes fuel that might be better used extending loiter times.
Is it really sensible for a next-generation ARL aircraft to carry everything that Southcom, Eucom, Centcom and Pacom might need at the same time? This sounds like a prescription for a plane that costs too much to produce and too much to operate. Before the Army gets too far down the road on recapitalizing ARL, it ought to consider the possibility of reconfigurable sensor packages that can reduce weight and cost — payloads that can be swapped out quickly so the plane doesn’t have to drag around so much baggage. Sometimes it makes more sense to be light and flexible rather than ready for any eventuality.
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