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Savings in aircraft losses swing the argument in favour of auto-GCAS

The US Air Force is finally implementing automatic ground collision avoidance system (auto-GCAS) technology on much of its fighter fleet nearly 30 years after the technology was developed. Auto-GCAS has the potential not only to save lives, but also save money by reducing accidents, which is ultimately what convinced the Pentagon to adopt the technology.

Auto-GCAS dates from the mid-1980s when the USAF was working on the Advanced Fighter Technology Integration F-16 prototype. But while the system worked, data storage was not sufficiently developed for auto-GCAS to be implemented on operational aircraft. Nonetheless, the experience provided valuable data.

The current USAF effort has its origins in the Automatic Collision Avoidance Technology/Fighter Risk Reduction Project that began in 2004. The business case showed that controlled flight into terrain in the case of the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor would cost the service seven of those very expensive machines over the life of that small fleet. The cost was even higher for larger fleets like the Lockheed F-16 and F-35.

For the F-35, at an assumed $114 million average unit cost, losing 10 aircraft would equate to $1.14 billion. The F-22 fleet during its relatively short existence has already lost four airframes, two of which would likely have been saved with auto-GCAS. That amounts to $600 million of damages using the most generous measure of aircraft cost.

Given the potential savings, the USAF began flight demonstrations of the auto-GCAS technology in 2010 in an F-16. But the Pentagon has lagged behind foreign customers, some of whom have ordered a more advanced auto-CGAS for their aircraft. Moreover, the USAF dropped implementation of the full digital terrain elevation data-based auto-GCAS from the F-22 over cost. However, Lockheed was later able to convince the USAF to implement a simpler, cheaper system.

The first operational DoD full auto-GCAS will be installed on the USAF's F-16 fleet starting early next year. From there, it will migrate to other platforms including the Boeing F/A-18 and F-35.

While cost savings are what ultimately sold auto-GCAS technology, its most important benefit is that it can save lives. Indeed, Lockheed engineers see no reason similar technology could not be installed in civilian airliners. Given the potential to enhance safety, serious consideration needs to be given to adopt auto-GCAS for wider applications.