The U.S. Army and Air Force are continuing to field intelligence-collection equipment to support intensifying operations in Afghanistan.
These new systems include sophisticated wide-area surveillance cameras as well as signals-intelligence (sigint) collectors, and they represent a step forward in the Pentagon’s efforts to counter improvised explosive devices (IED). But the services are only making rudimentary strides in linking the intelligence provided from them; this is forcing manpower-intensive operations to exploit the data from these new aircraft.
However, a recent Army effort to quickly field a new sigint collector has been stalled by contractor protests.
Northrop Grumman and L-3 Communications each filed protests in mid-December with the U.S. Government Accountability Office over their losses to Boeing for the $323-million contract to develop the Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350ER-based Enhanced Medium-Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (Emarss). Boeing’s contract, signed with the Army Nov. 30, was expected to deliver aircraft for use in Afghanistan 18 months later, though that plan is likely to be dashed while federal auditors review the Army’s source selection. Auditors have until March 25 to render a decision.
L-3 was considered the frontrunner in the competition to develop this communications-intelligence system. L-3 is wrapping up similar work modifying Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350ERs for the Air Force’s MC-12W Project Liberty program. Based on the Army contracting officer’s documentation, L-3 bested Boeing in two of four key areas. L-3’s price, $273 million, was lower by about $50 million, and L-3 received higher marks for its ability to integrate subcontractors, including small businesses. The two companies were equally rated in both technical performance and past performance.
The Army put the most emphasis on technical performance. Next in priority came cost, then past performance. The subcontractor and small business plan took the lowest priority. “The non-cost factors, when combined, were significantly more important than the cost/price factor,” says the Army’s documentation. “Pursuant to these guidelines, Boeing was determined to provide the best overall value to the government in proposing the most objective level performance capability and a design that facilitated future growth to the system.”
Lockheed Martin/Sierra Nevada is less likely to protest because Boeing’s bid won on technical and past performance, the intelligence official says. Boeing is well-versed in the protest process; the company objected to a win by Northrop Grumman/EADS of the Air Force’s KC-135 replacement contract and won. As a result, Boeing and EADS are once again competing for that work, estimated to be worth $35 billion.
Roger Krone, who heads Boeing Network and Space Systems, says one discriminator for his company’s Emarss bid was probably the use of Defense Receiver Technology (DRT), a signals-intelligence equipment manufacturer purchased by the company in late 2008. “We’ve been in the tactical [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] area really for a couple of years,” Krone says, noting that much recent work has been on small-scale but strategic projects. “It has been a focus area for us. We just see it as a growth area.”
The newly acquired Argon ST, which specializes in communications and intelligence, also was an integral part of the Boeing campaign, he says. “We think the Boeing value added [was] inside the skin of the aircraft, not the aircraft piece,” Krone adds. Also, he declines to say where Emarss modification work would be completed.
Meanwhile, Air Force officials are wrapping up production of the last five MC-12W Project Liberty aircraft at L-3’s facility in Greenville, Texas. This plant’s performance was a major factor in the company’s proposal for Emarss.
A government official says that 30 of 37 MC-12Ws are forward-deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan to support ground troops there. The remainders are used for training in Mississippi. The program was hastily initiated in July 2008 after Defense Secretary Robert Gates chided the Air Force for lackluster in-theater intelligence-collection. The first Project Liberty aircraft flew its first combat sortie in June 2009. The Pentagon plans to buy five more MC-12Ws; two for the Army and three for the Air Force. Though expected for delivery within a year, they are not yet on contract.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is continuing to experiment with various wide-area surveillance systems. One is the Blue Devil project. The aircraft component, dubbed BD-1, is fielded on the King Air 90 and includes a wide-area camera as well as signals-intelligence systems. The concept of operations calls for this system to track individuals using the FMV sensor based on sigint cues, such as cellular phone usage. SAIC is the prime contractor and the fleet will be contractor-owned and -operated.
Blue Devil adds to the wide-area surveillance capability on the earlier Air Force Angel Fire aircraft. The Blue Devil camera will provide a better swath size than Angel Fire and it adds an infrared capability (allowing for night operations looking for individuals planting IEDs) along with the sigint capability, according to another government official.
The same King Air 90s used for Angel Fire in Afghanistan were brought back and modified; they are now carrying the BD-1 equipment. Industry officials say BD-1 executed its first flight in U.S. Central Command this month, and there are four Blue Devil aircraft overseas. Angel Fire was not unlike the Army’s Constant Hawk project, which is managed by L-3, in that the system was used as a forensics tool in the IED fight. The wide-area camera is designed to stare and, if an event occurs, officials can backtrack through the images to see who planted the IED and from where they came.
BD-1 will also feed into the Pentagon’s Distributed Common Ground System and allow soldiers near-real-time access to data via the laptop-based Rover system. BD-1 is a project jointly sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory and Office of the Secretary of Defense Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Task Force.
A government official says that while the Army and Air Force have rushed to field the collectors, less work has been done to integrate the data collected by them on the ground. In some cases, airborne equipment only talks to a single tactical operations center, which might be located adjacent to another system’s ground station. But the two do not communicate or share data. The ultimate goal would be for industry to find a way to digitally connect the feeds from these sensors and provide visual tools for ground-based analysts so they may quickly react to a changing battlefield and reduce the amount of manpower needed to analyze the data.
The Air Force is also planning to field an airship-based version called BD-2; this project is being managed by the service’s Big Safari rapid acquisition office. The effort began under the Army’s oversight, but shifted to the Air Force after the Army turned its attention to Northrop Grumman’s Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEM-V) airship program.
Because it can be fielded sooner, BD-2 is viewed as a bridge to LEM-V. The airship is expected to be delivered in about 10 months; the prime contractor is a little-known company called MAV6, according to government officials.
The objective operational concept is to park the 350-ft.-long airship about 20,000 ft. over an area and hold position for 3-7 days. The reconfigurable payload store, envisioned to handle at least 2,500 lb., would carry sigint and imagery systems, including wide-area surveillance. The initial payload will be almost identical to that used on BD-1.
Finally, the Air Force is continuing its work to field a Reaper-borne Gorgon Stare wide-area surveillance system. Two increments of the system are planned; both call for the use of two pods, one on each MQ-9 wing. Three aircraft have been modified to carry the pods and three shipsets have been delivered by Sierra Nevada (which oversees both increments). The final shipset for Increment 1 is expected in mid-2011.
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