Boeing is set to deliver four Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS) intelligence gathering aircraft to the U.S. Army in December, a company official said Jan. 11.
With a contract award last June, Boeing is obliged to deliver an operational aircraft within 18 months, said Waldo Carmona, Boeing's director of networked tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
"We have an 18 month contract to deliver four aircraft, fully integrated and tested to deploy, by December 2012," he said. "I tell you firmly today, that we're on schedule to go do that."
According to Carmona, the Boeing team has an internal target to beat that delivery date.
Dan Goure, an analyst at the Arlington, Va.-based Lexington Institute, said that he was impressed at how quickly the program is proceeding.
"This was quite amazing in the sense of how fast they were able to get a program of record up, moving and, now, the first four vehicles in the field," he said. "It's quite impressive."
To make sure the company delivers on time, Boeing has purchased a Hawker-Beechcraft King Air 350ER which it will modify to aerodynamically match the actual EMARSS aircraft, said Carmona.
The modified aircraft will have an extended nose where the operational plane would have its retractable electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) camera ball and it would have all of the antennas mountings of the real thing.
"From an external configuration, our risk reduction prototype is going to look just like the real airplane," Carmona said.
The prototype will fly in May, said Carmona. He said he hopes the aircraft will be FAA certified by no later than early June.
"That's one of the reasons that will allow us to meet the schedule," he said, adding that the FAA certification will simplify testing for the Army when it receives the first aircraft.
Simultaneously, a Joint Integration Test Facility operated by Boeing and the Army will test the intelligence gathering hardware and software in a lab in Aberdeen, Md. The lab facility will also look at future upgrades to the system, Carmona said.
Flight testing with all of the hardware and software onboard the aircraft will happen later this year after the FAA certification is completed.
Once airborne developmental testing is done, the four EMARSS aircraft will be sent to Afghanistan for limited user trials, Carmona said. In essence, operational testing will be during real-life combat missions.
"The whole plan is to put it in a real environment and assess its capability," he said.
While the EMARSS is not a revolutionary leap in capability, it does offer better performance than older aircraft like those used by the Army Task Force ODIN or the Air Force's MC-12 Project Liberty planes, said Goure.
"It makes absolute sense in the long-run to now put together a program of record that gets you everything you want, replaces the existing aircraft and lasts 25 years," he said. "It's a substantial improvement in capability and maintainability."
Carmona said that in addition to its powerful Wescam 15 EO/IR camera, EMARSS will carry a signal intelligence and communication intelligence payload. It also carries line-of-sight and non-line-of-sight high bandwidth data-links and can link to the Army's Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS-A). There are provisions for three intelligence analyst stations onboard, one of which can be configured for special mission packages. The EMARSS has provisions to carry 400 pounds of special intelligence payloads that are not part of the regular aircraft suite, Carmona said.
In the cockpit, the pilots are afforded a Situational Awareness Data-link (SADL) display, which enables the aviators steer the aircraft onto the crew's intended quarry.
Despite the weight, drag and power requirements, the aircraft will have seven hours of endurance, Carmona said.
Currently, the Engineering Manufacturing Development (EMD) contract is for four aircraft only, Carmona said. The Army has a requirement for 36 production planes, but the money for those planes is not in the budget.
The EMARSS program's budget has been caught in a political battle between the Army and the U.S. Air Force, said Goure.
"The issue here is politics," Goure said. "The Army essentially zeroed this out of the [Program Objective Memorandum] because it was afraid that, like on the C-27s, that it was going to put up the money, the program was going to go to the Air Force and the Air Force would just walk away with the money."
The problem will persist until the Pentagon sorts out who runs manned tactical airborne ISR, Goure said. Moreover, the Air Force is not willing to guarantee the availability of the aircraft to the Army whenever it asks because it manages assets across the entire theatre of operations, Goure said. Logically, the mission should be part of Army's repertoire, he said.
"It's a fundamental issue of how you manage tactical ISR," Goure said.
The Army needs to push for the EMARSS program to prove that it can successfully acquire and manage a program properly and in less than a 10-year span, Goure said.
"You need a win," Goure said. "Why would you pick this program to torpedo?"
Goure noted that EMARSS is amongst the most successful of Army procurement efforts in terms of execution, budget and timeliness.
Carmona said hopes to convince the Pentagon of the value of the EMARSS by demonstration just how good the aircraft really is over Afghanistan. A Milestone C decision on whether the Army will ultimately buy the plane is expected in the first quarter of 2013, he said.