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USAF looks for expeditionary precision landing system for Pacific

The US Air Force (USAF) is looking for a precision approach landing system to enable its aircraft to land at expeditionary air strips on islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The service is asking military contractors to submit white papers that outline component-level designs and trade-off analyses to determine the right mix of requirements necessary for a Small Footprint Precision Approach and Landing Capability (SF-PALC) system, it says in an online notice on 17 October.

The USAF would use information from the white papers to set requirements for a separate contract to fund development of prototypes from one or more manufacturers. A production contract could follow the prototyping phase, says the service.

The expeditionary precision approach landing system is needed to help the USAF carry out its Agile Combat Employment (ACE) strategy in the Pacific Ocean. The strategy is a response to China’s precision, long-range missiles, which could hit US aircraft parked on the tarmac. To avoid losses on the ground, the USAF plans to fly from a greater number of air bases, of sizes small and large, so as to increase the number of targets an adversary would need to attack.

However, the agile-basing plan requires the service to constantly keep its aircraft on the move, so that the Chinese military doesn’t have time to spot and attack US jets.

“The ACE concept is basically having a jet land [at a remote location], then a team of maintainers re-arms and refuels the jet, and sends it back into the fight as quickly as possible,” says Master Sargent Edmund Nicholson of 67th aircraft maintenance unit, which is based at Kadena air base in Japan. He explained the concept via an USAF media release about an agile combat exercise at Fort Greely, Alaska in August 2019.

In order for a jet to land at a remote island air strip – a runway without the usual navigation and air traffic control infrastructure – the USAF needs portable equipment. The service wants its SF-PALC system to be small enough to fit onto one 463L pallet, which would be airlifted inside one Lockheed Martin C-130H cargo transport. The system must also be able to be setup and operated in a GPS-denied environment, says the USAF.

The SF-PALC system requirement comes after the US Navy awarded Raytheon a $235 million contract for 23 Joint Precision Approach and Landing Systems (JPALS) in May 2019. JPALS is a differential, GPS-based precision landing system that guides aircraft to a landing spot, typically on an aircraft carrier deck, though a land-based expeditionary unit is in development as well.

The navigation equipment is integrated into the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II and will be installed on the in-development Boeing MQ-25A Stingray unmanned in-flight refuelling vehicle. Raytheon has said it plans to demonstrate expeditionary versions of JPALS to the USAF.

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