Aerial Common Sensor Is Re-born

You might think the army would still be shy over publicity for the Aerial Common Sensor (ACS, for short).

Some of you will recall that ACS was the acquisition program that got cancelled in January 2006 in a most embarrassing fashion.

Somehow, Lockheed Martin promised the army that they could squeeze a 20,000-pound sensor on an aircraft with only 14,000lbs of extra room, and the army bought it. There were lots of reasons and justifications given for the oversight, but, really, it was just a dumb mistake. The army threw away $200 million and five years of wasted time.

So it was a bit surprising this week to see ACS back in an army news release.

Of course, the need remains to replace the army’s RC-7 and RC-12 with a spy aircraft built after the Apple IIe computer generation. (The navy’s need to replace the EP-3 also lurks in the background, but they have other options than ACS.)

So, for the army, the need remains, but so does the question: how?

The ACS is supposed to be a platform that can see all and hear all. In the intelligence world, that means you need a very sophisticated TV camera and an antenna receiver that can pick up everything from a high-bandwidth fire control radar system to a low-bandwidth cell phone held by the trigger-man of an improvised explosive device.

That is asking a lot for any one sensor to do.

With so many competing demands for cash, a next-generation spy aircraft may not be at the top of the army’s budget priority list.

Look for the army to start cheap with an “off-the-shelf” sensor. One candidate often floated in industry circles is Northrop Grumman’s Airborne Signals Intelligence Payload (ASIP). It is already flying aboard the U-2 spy plane and is selected for two unmanned aircraft – the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9B Predator.

The TV camera – also known in the military as a charge-coupled device (CCD) — may be added to this system, or that part of the payload could be outsourced to another unmanned aircraft, such as the army’s RQ-7 Shadow or MQ-12 Warrior.

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