The Army suffered major delays in building the first four engineering and manufacturing development aircraft and had cost overruns so serious the Army was assessing the possibility of using Air Force Liberty planes to meet its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft needs, a proposed move previously rejected by both the Army and Air Force.
"This was a program that was in troubled water," Lt. Col. Scott Feathers told Defense News in an interview at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. "It was under a lot of scrutiny and I think that the office has been able to take that and turn it around and actually take something that was in jeopardy and now we are actually fielding it to the war fighter."
The October 2010 Army Cost Position estimated the need for $908 million to support the procurement of 36 systems, which equated to $25.2 million per average unit cost. The current modification plan requires $338 million to support the modification of 24 systems. This equates to a $16.2 million per average unit cost.
The new plan calls for four variants. The four original Boeing-integrated EMARSS aircraft will be used as the signals intelligence variant (EMARSS-S). Then the Army is taking quick-reaction capabilities developed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: Eight Constant Hawk aircraft will be used for tactical operations and geo-intelligence (EMARSS-G) and four will have vehicle and dismounted exploitation radar (VADER) sensors (EMARSS-V).
The rest will be Liberty aircraft that the Air Force was planning to divest. These aircraft will become the multi-intelligence variant (EMARSS-M).
The aircraft — all Beechcraft 350s — are 80 percent common, including communications suites and full-motion video, and all will have the Army's Distributed Common Ground System, Feathers said. The differences in the aircraft are in the sensor packages on board. All of the sensors combined wouldn't fit onto just one aircraft, which is why the Army decided to split EMARSS into four variants, he explained.
Beyond Boeing's first four EMARSS aircraft, the Army did not compete for integration work, but instead will use system integrators already on contract for the quick-reaction capabilities feeding into the program.
The Army's assistant product manager for EMARSS, Maj. Paddy Heiliger, explained the Army did not own any documentation, drawing packages or technology data associated with the platforms so it would have been cost prohibitive to go to anybody other than the people that originally built the aircraft.
EMARSS-V integration is taking place at Sierra Nevada in Hagerstown, Maryland, while L-3 Mission Integration Division in Greenville, Texas, will work on EMARSS-G.
L-3 is also the prime contractor for EMARSS-M, but has teamed up with Sierra Nevada in that effort and the work is being split between the two sites in Texas and Maryland.
The four EMARSS-S — the original Boeing-built aircraft — are currently with the 224th Military Intelligence Aerial Exploitation Battalion, the first unit equipped, at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia. Training with EMARSS-S began earlier this month. The unit is expected to train for seven weeks and then the aircraft will be considered fielded, according to Heiliger.
"I know the DoD would very much like to get these into the fight as soon as possible," Feathers said.
At the same time, one EMARSS-M and one EMARSS-V are in the initial integration phase and in the first quarter of fiscal 2017, one VADER, one multi-intelligence and two geo-intelligence aircraft will go through a full operational test and evaluation.
Last month, the program received approval from the Army program executive offices in charge to build the remaining 16 aircraft.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.