Northrop Grumman has acknowledged completing an internal study to define the costs and engineering changes required to upgrade the US Army's RC-12X fleet with a full motion video (FMV) payload.

"We have put together estimates for the army on what it would cost to put FMV on our [aircraft]," says Trip Carter, Northrop's director of airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Carter adds that the company-funded study was requested by the army, but army officials have not decided to fund such an upgrade.

The RC-12 has traditionally been limited to the signals intelligence mission, using antennas and onboard processors to intercept an enemy's transmissions and triangulating to determine their position. But intelligence-gathering aircraft, such as the US Air Force's MC-12 Liberty, are increasingly being delivered with FMV capbility, allowing the same aircraft to identify the source of the emission visually.

In January, Northrop delivered the first two of 14 RC-12Xs to the army. The army has spent about $250 million so far to modify about half of the Guardrail/Common Sensor fleet into the RC-12X configuration.

The new intelligence system includes a high-band communications intelligence system and an electronic intelligence capability. Carter says that an unclassified demonstration of similar equipment last year identified the source of a signal emission to within a 150m radius within seconds. The same job required the legacy Guardrail fleet to use three aircraft to locate the source using triangulation.

The RC-12X, however, must hand-off the target's location to a different platform with an FMV system, such as the US Air Force MC-12 Liberty or the army's C-23B Constant Hawk, to visually confirm the target.

"When you think about Guardrail you think about a Cold War application - a strategic, stand-off asset that looks out more than it looks down," Carter says. "With our modernised RC-12X payload, it couldn't be further from the truth. We still have the ability to do the stand-off mission. But equally important we can to that over-watch mission very effectively as well."

The army launched the RC-12X programme after the cancellation of the Lockheed Martin aerial common sensor (ACS) in 2006. Northrop received a sole-source contract with a ceiling of $500 million to modify 14 Guardrails. So far, the army has spent about half of that amount to integrate the new payload and deliver the first two RC-12Xs, Carter says.

The 14 modified aircraft will have about 12-14 years of service life remaining. The army is currently planning to replace the legacy Guardrail fleet with the enhanced medium altitude reconnaissance and surveillance (EMARSS) system, which was awarded to Boeing in December. Three losing bidders, including Northrop, filed protests, which remain under review by the Government Accountability Office.

Carter noted that the army also has the option to convert another 14 Guardrail systems to the RC-12X configuration.

"Bottom line in the fight today is performance," Carter says. The RC-12X "is up and running quickly. The proof is in the deployment and use. With other systems being deployed, we'll see what the department decides to do."

Source: Flight International