Contract cancellation sparks new ACS hunt

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The US Army last week launched a wide-ranging search for new signals intelligence aircraft after cancelling an $879 contract awarded to Lockheed Martin to develop the Aerial Common Sensor (ACS).

The ACS programme will continue as a requirement, but be returned to the drawing board.

The US Air Force will be invited to participate in the planning process – unlike when the programme was originally launched. The air force has been agitating to join the army programme or take over the mission entirely since it became apparent that Lockheed’s selection of the Embraer ERJ-145 regional jet for ACS was inadequate.

The navy has been a long-time participant in the programme, although it never officially joined the army’s ACS contract with Lockheed.

The army’s two immediate needs are to launch a process to identify a suitable platform to perform the ACS mission and to extend the service life of the two aircraft types now doing the job – the de Havilland Canada RC-7 Aerial Reconnaissance Low (ARL) and the Beech RC-12 Guardrail.

“You have to be able to fill the capability gap” with a more suitable platform to carry a multi-intelligence sensor package, says Brig Gen Stephen Mundt, director of the Army Aviation Task Force. He adds that the army intelligence officials who oversee the ACS programme must decide whether service life extension programmes are required for the ARL and RC-12 fleets.

Maj Gen James Pillsbury, chief of the army’s Aviation and Missile Command, says the contractor-supported fleets are in relatively good shape: “Our maintenance philosophy will allow us to fly these planes for the foreseeable future”. During the ACS deliberations, Guardrail prime Northrop Grumman proposed upgrading the RC-12 airframe as a low-cost alternative to moving to a regional or business jet derivative.

The army issued an ACS stop- work order to Lockheed last September, requiring the company to propose options for fixing the programme. Its recommended solution would have replaced the ERJ-145 with the Bombardier Global Express XRS business jet.

ACS competition loser Northrop warned that switching to a new aircraft would probably trigger an official protest, a factor which contributed to the army’s decision to terminate the programme instead.

STEPHEN TRIMBLE/WASHINGTON DC