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Latest Army Spy Plane Readied in Secret Lab

May. 7, 2013 - 03:45AM   |  
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A mock-up of a King Air 350 fuselage is used to test the integration of the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System on the aircraft.
A mock-up of a King Air 350 fuselage is used to test the integration of the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System on the aircraft. (Army)
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Nestled off a road at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., is a complex of modern office buildings that house some of the Army’s most innovative programs. Dubbed the Army’s C4ISR Campus, it has the feel of a Silicon Valley office park: horizontal fins direct sunlight inward, and giant lathe screens are meant to hold ivy to help keep the buildings cool in summer.

On the fifth floor of one building is a secret Army laboratory dubbed the Joint Testing and Integrating Facility. Cellphones and electronics have to be stored in lockers outside. It’s a software engineering lab and the computer servers inside give off a roar.

It’s here that the U.S. Army’s latest ISR plane is being rigged up to do its job. In the back of the room, next to cabinets with combination locks, is a full-size mock-up of a plane fuselage — the fuselage of a King Air 350, which has become the standard for a lot of ISR platforms. The fuselage is the armature for what will become the Army’s newest intelligence platform, the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System, or EMARSS. The fuselage has been set up so that guts of the system can be integrated, engineered, tested and changed. It’s inside that the sensor operators sit and will operate “the ball” as it’s called, working the signals intelligence, thermal, electro-optical and other sensors.

In a sense, this is an extraordinary way to build an ISR system. Lt. Col. Dean Hoffman, the project manager for EMARSS, joked that “we kick the tires and make sure all the systems work. This way, we can check the sensors and the integration before we burn an ounce of JP-8.” He says the method paid for itself in the first 24 hours. “Boeing brought the racks in. The racks didn’t fit right. The engineer had measured them wrong.” The problem could be fixed fast, before they learned about the problem on an actual aircraft.

The primary mission of the EMARSS is to replace the Army’s aged fleet of RC-12 Guardrail signals intelligence planes, a system first deployed when Richard Nixon was president. The most recent upgrade was the RC-12X, which flies in Afghanistan, listening in on Taliban cellphones and radios. Boeing is the prime contractor, and the base plan is to install an electro-optical/infrared full-motion video sensor and a communications intelligence collection system.

At first glance, it is hard to see how the EMARSS is dramatically different, physically, from the Air Force’s Project Liberty fleet — the MC-12s that were built fast to help in Afghanistan. Again, those are King Air platforms with multi-int sensors.

The real distinction is intended to be the software. For EMARSS, said Hoffman, all of the sensors and cameras onboard are to be integrated into the Army’s centralized intelligence system, that’s the Distributed Common Ground System-Army.

“You had multi-int before,” Hoffman said. “But this is taking it to one centralized PED” — processing, exploitation and distribution.

Even though the Army is putting its intelligence into the DCGS-A system (see Interview, Page 28), many of the planes it has been flying aren’t integrated into that system.

Hoffman points to the cluster of surveillance planes that were built and deployed fast as part of Task Force Odin. “Five Constant Hawks,” he said. “Three TACOPS. Two Libertys. Two VADERs.” That’s 12 planes, all built on the King Air, but with different sensor types.

Some are government-owned and operated, and some are government-owned but operated by contractors. Hoffman said, where possible, that fleet will be integrated into EMARSS.

“So we don’t want to lose that investment the war gave us,” he said. “So how do we take those platforms the war gave us and bring them into the program of record? That’s what we’re trying to do: recapitalize on the investments made during the war.”

Hoffman is a Special Forces officer who transitioned to the acquisition corps as a major. He cut his teeth in his new field working to build a still-classified ISR platform for U.S. Special Operations Command.

EMARSS, he said, seemed like the perfect job for him once that was through.

EMARSS is often thought of as the successor to the short-lived Aerial Common Sensor program, a joint Navy and Army intelligence project that flopped. The program, launched in 2000, was going to provide a plane that suited both of the services. The contract with Lockheed Martin was canceled in 2006.

Boeing is scheduled to deliver the first four fully equipped planes in September.

— Aram Roston

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