ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — The revamping of an Army spy plane program is expected to save the service about $216 million across the fleet compared to the cost of the original plan, what it would have spent if it had continued down a previously planned course, according to the product manager for the Army's Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance Systems (EMARSS).
The EMARSS Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System program has been tumultuous, coming close to cancellation when the service announced in 2011 it would build only four aircraft. The program was resurrected when the Army decided to build 24 of the spy planes using Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350ERs.
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.
The Army has fallen somewhere in the middle and has chosen to procure 24 EMARSS aircraft using existing sensors and aircraft. it already has. That includes taking some of the Air Force's Liberty aircraft for the program.
"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."
Because the EMARSS effort is now centered around using existing what it has in the inventory to build up the fleet rather than buying new aircraft, the Army will save about $9 million per aircraft, according to numbers provided by the Army.
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.
If all funding remains in tact, Feathers said, the final aircraft is expected to roll out in fiscal 2018. While the second lot of four aircraft will have just reached fielding in fiscal 2017, the Army can move quickly for the last 16 because it will have worked out the bugs during and kinks in the integration of the first of each variant, Feathers said.
The Army is already starting to look at what sensors should be upgraded or replaced and what other future capabilities could are out there to enhance the fleet as threats evolve, according to Feathers.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.