NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force is considering whether to press forward with a demonstration of inexpensive, off-the-shelf light intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft that could complement a potential light attack plane buy.
The service completed a demonstration of four light attack planes at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, in August. During the demonstration, Textron’s Scorpion aircraft caught the attention of Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat command, because its modular design allows for a wide package of sensors.
As a result, Holmes said, some in the service are now intrigued by the idea of hosting a similar demonstration focused on ISR capabilities.
“If you look at some of the airplanes we flew, there are airplanes that have kind of been built with great big internal bays where you could carry a whole variety of sensors, so it’s an intriguing possibility for Scorpion,” Holmes told reporters during a Sept. 18 roundtable at the Air Force Association’s annual conference.
“It’s got extra power and cooling and things. Might we want to use that airplane to experiment with different payloads that are proposed by industry, and might that be a follow-on experiment?”
No decisions have been made on whether to start a light ISR aircraft experiment, but Holmes said Air Force leaders are considering whether an off-the-shelf plane might be able to take on more of the surveillance mission in permissive environments at a lower cost than platforms like the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper.
Should the Air Force decide to move forward with an experiment, it would open up the process to other potential industry participants, said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service’s top uniformed acquisition officer.
The opportunity would be a boon to Textron, which has not been able to land a customer for the Scorpion jet since the aircraft’s debut in 2013. Its future in the later stages of the light attack experiment also seems uncertain, as Air Force leaders said in August that the two aircraft that met its requirements — Textron’s AT-6 Wolverine and the A-29 Super Tucano offered by Sierra Nevada Corp. and Embraer — are most likely to move on to a future combat demo.
Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, who heads Air Force Materiel Command, said one of the most intriguing aspects about a light ISR experiment would be the chance to play with aircraft with open mission systems, where new sensors can be plugged in within a span of a couple hours, rather than years of systems engineering.
Operating a common, low-cost ISR platform might also be a good way for the U.S. Air Force to build on its partnerships with other militaries, she said.
“Oftentimes, when the United States goes into coalitions, the first thing that some of the smaller countries can bring to the table is their air power,” she said Sept. 18. “And if we can have a platform that’s affordable not just to us but affordable to some of our potential allies, whether it’s the light attack or it’s a light ISR, that will enable us to build our networks.”
Instead of fielding a fleet of small jets like Scorpion, Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst for the Teal Group, told Defense News that the Air Force could benefit more from restarting the operations of the MC-12W, a crewed ISR aircraft rapidly fielded by the service under Project Liberty.
When the war in Iraq wound down, the service passed on some of those planes — a commercial C-12 modified by L-3 Technologies to include sophisticated surveillance and signals intelligence equipment — to the Army and Special Operations Command.
“I would think it would be relatively easy to just bring them back,” he said, adding that it comes down to a question of “who operates light ISR? The [Air Force] can now decide whether to try and take back some or all of the job, or it can duplicate Army capabilities.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.