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Lockheed sees new market for leased spyplanes

Lockheed Martin has identified a possible new business model in the global market for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft: leasing platforms that carry reconfigurable suites of multi-intelligence payloads.

The strategy is based on Lockheed's airborne multi-intelligence laboratory, a company-owned Gulfstream III modified to carry three sensors - electro-optical/infrared cameras, low- and high-band signals receivers and a synthetic aperture radar - and an on-board processing system.

Lockheed officials previously advertised the aircraft as simply a testbed. US and foreign militaries could pay Lockheed to experiment with unfamiliar techniques, such as using the signals intelligence system to cue the camera on to a potential target.

But Lockheed also now sees the platform possibly ushering a different kind of business model for a traditional defence contractor.

"We are also investigating the possibility of offering the AML as an ISR platform that customers can lease to meet their ISR needs," says Jim Quinn, a Lockheed vice-president. "We would reconfigure the aircraft to meet the customer's specific requirements, then lease the aircraft for a period of time to that customer."

Quinn also says the system could be installed on different platforms, ranging at the high end from Gulfstream G550s and Bombardier Q400s with roughly 9,070kg (20,000lb) payload capacity to Beechcraft King Air 350s with roughly 900kg payloads.

The strategy could expand Lockheed's original concept beyond the laboratory stage and into the operational arena. Several small US companies already operate in this space, including Avenge and Dynamic Aviation Services. These companies lease King Airs and Cessna Caravans and private crews to US military and intelligence agencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Lockheed plans to partner such companies to broker aircraft for the leasing deals, taking advantage of their lower overhead and existing relationships, Quinn says. In turn, Lockheed would provide the multi-intelligence suites and perform the integration on the aircraft, he adds.

Platforms carrying multiple intelligence payloads that can be cross-referenced in real-time by on-board processing equipment and specialists remain an operational novelty.

The US Army signed a $2 billion deal in 2004 to acquire the aerial common sensor (ACS), but the contract with Lockheed was terminated two years later after the multi-intelligence sensor payload outgrew the capacity of the selected platform, a modified Embraer ERJ-145.

The army is still considering how to restart the ACS programme, and to find a suitable replacement strategy for aging de Havilland RC-7 airborne reconnaissance lows and Beechcraft RC-12 Guardrails. The current plan includes a five-layer system, with large regional turboprop aircraft, such as Q400s, and a long-endurance hybrid airship at the high end.

Other layers include King Airs. The system also includes two or three different unmanned air vehicles, with the Boeing A160 Hummingbird among the candidates.

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