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Airborne intelligence: U.S. Army building NextGen surveillance planes

Army scientists and engineers are developing a next-generation surveillance aircraft, an 'intelligence collection, processing, and targeting support system.' EMARSS will 'provide persistent multi-intelligence capability to detect, locate, classify/identify, and track surface targets with a high degree of timeliness and accuracy.'

In a Maryland laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Army scientists, engineers and program developers are working on the Army's next-generation surveillance aircraft, the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System (EMARSS). This NextGen flying spy [PDF] is a "C-12 based, direct support, manned airborne intelligence collection, processing, and targeting support system. EMARSS provides a persistent multi-intelligence capability to detect, locate, classify/identify, and track surface targets with a high degree of timeliness and accuracy. EMARSS aircraft will be assigned to the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command's (INSCOM's) Aerial Exploitation Battalions (AEB)."

The Army said it is currently "integrating an EMARSS fuselage with cameras, sensors, software, antennas, intelligence databases, and electronic equipment;" the "sophisticated battlefield surveillance aircraft" is to be delivered to Afghanistan for soldiers to run test trials.

Boeing provided the above image of EMARSS as part of a press release when it was awarded the Army contract "for engineering and manufacturing development of four aircraft, with options for two additional aircraft, six low rate initial production aircraft, and interim contractor logistics support. The total performance of the contract, if all options are exercised, is 42 months." In October, Boeing conducted a test flight of the EMARSS prototype

According to another EMARSS brochure [PDF] posted by the Federation of American Scientists:

The capabilities include an electrooptical/infrared high definition full motion video sensor, communications intelligence (COMINT) sensor, and an aerial precision geo-location (APG) sensor, all supported by line-of-sight and beyond line-of-sight (LOS/BLOS) communications and hosted on a manned, medium-altitude derivative of the commercial Hawker-Beechcraft King Air 350ER aircraft.

The Department of Defense's Armed with Science blog explained that the capabilities of EMARSS are unique in the respect of the data-link to the Army's Distributed Common Ground System [PDF], an intelligence database on the ground which can "compile, organize, display and distribute information from more than 500 data sources" including "space-based sensors, geospatial information and signal and human intelligence sources." As EMARSS flies, it is capable of immediately picking up the most recent intelligence information.

Raymond Santiago, the deputy product manager of Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance Systems, said that "plans for the EMARSS aircraft include efforts to engineer a surveillance aircraft with a wide range of vital combat-relevant capabilities, such as the ability to quickly gather, integrate and disseminate intelligence information of great value to warfighters in real time. It is being built to do this with an integrated suite of cameras, sensors, communications and signals intelligence-gathering technologies and a data-link with ground-based intelligence databases allowing it to organize and communicate information of great relevance to a commander's area of responsibility."

Waldo Carmona, Boeing's director of networked tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), told RP Defense:

In addition to its powerful Wescam 15 EO/IR camera, EMARSS will carry a signal intelligence and communication intelligence payload. It also carries line-of-sight and non-line-of-sight high bandwidth data-links and can link to the Army's Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS-A). There are provisions for three intelligence analyst stations onboard, one of which can be configured for special mission packages. The EMARSS has provisions to carry 400 pounds of special intelligence payloads that are not part of the regular aircraft suite. In the cockpit, the pilots are afforded a Situational Awareness Data-link (SADL) display, which enables the aviators steer the aircraft onto the crew's intended quarry.

The EMARSS reconnaissance aircraft project "grew out of the failed Aerial Common Sensor," a project that should have been able "to detect troop movements, intercept enemy communication and radar transmissions." The Army Acquisition Support Center reported the Army wants "one bird" that can do it all; designed with a plug and play "open architecture" that could allow radar imaging in the future; this might include radar that can detect movement as well as "paint an image or picture of the ground showing terrain, elevation and nearby structures."

"It makes absolute sense in the long-run to now put together a program of record that gets you everything you want, replaces the existing aircraft and lasts 25 years," said Dan Goure, an analyst at the Lexington Institute. "It's a substantial improvement in capability and maintainability. The Army needs to push for the EMARSS program to prove that it can successfully acquire and manage a program properly and in less than a 10-year span."

Unlike the Army's new and gigantic $172 million blimp, the EMARSS is listed in the 2013 Army Weapon Systems Handbook. The blimp, better known as a Long Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle (LEMV), successfully completed a test fight in August. It is almost the size of a seven-story flying football field; it's meant to fly at speeds between 30 and 80 knots without ceasing for 21 straight days while providing an "unblinking" eye of surveillance.

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