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EMARSS: The Hawker Beechcraft Turned Spy Plane

Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance Systems (EMARSS) aircraft require various avionics technologies.

Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, i.e. platforms, are sorted according to many metrics — intel-gathering sensors, form-factor, size, configuration, endurance (“loiter time”), service ceilings, missions and degree of interoperability and data-sharing. Ditto their many end users: military, law enforcement and border protection entities, for instance. Agencies federal and local employ them too for search and rescue missions, and for monitoring volcanic activity, hurricane aftermaths, crop health and the like.

Many aerial ISR operations are unmanned and conducted geospatially via satellites, or at interim altitudes, such as the strategic Global Hawk drone and others in its class. Much closer to the terrestrial domain are a dozen or more manned ISR aircraft. Some of these small-to-medium “tactical” intelligence collectors fly discrete mission profiles, seeking and homing in on specific targets. Some are opportunistic hunters; others, specific to a service branch. A few are multi-intelligence, or “Multi-Int,” with broad utility and interchangeable, mission-dependent sensor and avionics suites.

The last category includes the U.S. Army’s latest spy plane — EMARSS, for Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance Systems. It’s based on the proven Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350ER (extended range). Operational only since 2016, the handful of EMARSS planes deployed so far have earned deployment chops in Africa, Latin America and, apparently, Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, having worked around hurdles including sequestration, cost overruns and the need to modify and reconfigure homebound examples, among others, the program’s pace is quickening.

The initial first-gen EMARSS platforms are fast growing toward an eventual 24-aircraft fleet, with more than half already delivered, Army aviation officials told Avionics. These comprise the original model and spun-off variants G, M, S and V, each boasting different sensor capabilities and, thus, mission profiles. Some have been cribbed from the U.S. Air Force “Liberty” spy plane inventory for a $9 million per airplane cost saving versus buying new, the service estimates. With the nascent EMARSS program reportedly close to being axed in 2012, it’s an altogether welcome outcome.

As Air Force Lt. Col. Sean M. Smith, product manager for medium altitude reconnaissance and surveillance systems put it last year, “You’re bringing the ability not only to detect and exploit the target, but then, also to process all that information and get it out to the people who need it, so that they can take the appropriate [defensive or offensive] action.”

No matter the model, flight decks of all EMARSS aircraft include advanced communications and cockpit avionics, and of course “special mission” sensors. For the pair of operators at the two display screen-equipped workstations, there are combinations and permutations of these among other tools:

  • MX-MX-15 full-motion day-and-night video,
  • RADAR and LIDAR,
  • Geospatial intelligence (GeoINT),
  • Synthetic aperture radar (SAR),
  • Infrared (IR) image capability,
  • Aerial precision guidance system,
  • Terrain-revealing, image-generating wide area surveillance system (WAAS),
  • Satellite communication (satcom) link,
  • Signal intelligence (SIGINT) sensor,
  • Communications intelligence (COMINT)collection system,
  • Aerial-precision geolocation system,
  • Line-of-site (LOS) tactical and beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) communications suites,
  • ADS-B Out, to transit U.S. airspace,
  • Electronic countermeasures (ECMs)

Critical to binding together all the “ingredients” is the Army’s ground-based intelligence database. The Distributed Common Ground System-A (DCGS-A) is a gigantic, integrated data repository able to compile, organize, display and distribute information from more than 500 data providers. It incorporates data from space-based sensors, geospatial information, signal and human intelligence sources. A datalink with information from the ground-based DCGS-A lets flight crews use display screens and onboard electronics, receiving and viewing intelligence information in real-time about their area of operations, the Army asserts.

The EMARSS avionics suite includes the Pro Line 21 from Rockwell Collins.Photo courtesy of Rockwell Collins

In late April, a senior official at the Army’s Program Executive Office (PEO) Aviation, who wished to remain nameless for security reasons, offered Avionics an EMARSS program snapshot, with progress updates along with new and near-horizon expectations. Among significant advances was last year’s important EMARSS operational test and evaluation (FOT&E), which was “successful — finishing on schedule and within budget constraints.” As for current numbers of platforms, he explained: “Seventeen of 24 aircraft [are] modified and fielded, with fielding expected to be complete in fiscal year 2019. Ten of the 17 EMARSS aircraft are currently deployed.”

The EMARSS avionics suite includes the Pro Line 21 from Rockwell Collins and partners. The maker touts it as having been installed on 5,000 aircraft. Regarding the software solution, the official stressed that unlike the planes’ other flight deck features like sensor arrays overall and some instrumentation, “aircraft avionics are the same for all variants. It is a mix of civil and military avionics.” For their part, the airframes, which are all King Air 350-derived, are another integrative mix. “The EMARSS fleet is a conversion/import from Liberty Project [Air Force MC-12W] aircraft, Constant Hawk, tactical operation and vehicle and dismounted exploitation radar,” the official said. In this regard, there are no real capability changes in from the four first-generation EMARSS built in 2013 to 2014. The remainder of the fleet include “copies of the original three models (variants G/M/V),” he said. This specialist, asked about the mission-dependent modularity characteristic of EMARSS and its close kin, pointed out, “We are modular in nature for the EMARSS-G [geospatial] aircraft only, allowing change of the primary sensor if needed.” In terms of the airframes’ dimensions, per se, and carrying capacity, they’re basically fixed and unalterable. “There is limited space and weight remaining on this airframe for any add-on equipment,” he said.

The official also touched on electronic or other countermeasures available to the EMARSS fleet, which is important given the rise in hacking exploits and the grave implications of U.S. government-sponsored mock attack demonstrations in recent years. He wouldn’t comment on cyber threats. But on something directly life-threatening to flight crew — infrared-guided missiles — he remarked, ”The EMARSS fleet has a mix of AAR-57 and AAR-47 countermeasure [self-protection] systems.” On the flip side, however, an offensive electronic warfare (EW) or electronic attack capability is “not a EMARSS requirement.” Specific to the DCGS-A datalink, he said it was especially vital, pointing out that it “provides EMARSS the ability to send and receive information pertinent to intelligence analysts worldwide,” both near and furthest afield. It yields, he added, an unprecedentedly clear, near-instantly available picture of allied and enemy troop dispositions and movements.

The MC-12W is a medium- to low-altitude, twin-engine turboprop aircraft. Its primary mission is providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support directly to ground forces. The MC-12W is a joint forces air component commander asset in support of the joint force commander.Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force

There are other positive changes and improvements in EMARSS evolution. The Army official confirmed reports about testing or upgrading existing componentry in variants other than the “plain vanilla” platform. “EMARSS-G successfully completed FOT&E in March 2017. There is a current effort to upgrade obsolete components on EMARSS-G’s WAAS sensor since it has been in the inventory for several years. Later this year, we will begin efforts to develop a new LIDAR sensor,” he said. Conversely, the EMARSS specialist quashed rumors that sensor operational ranges might be be lengthened via satellite signal-bounce or other relays. “Satellites are used to relay data, but do not extend sensor ranges,” he concluded.

Both in civil aviation and special-purpose military craft like these spooked-up Hawker Beechcraft, redundancy or backup of avionics and sensor systems is an ever-present challenge. For exigencies like the military GPS or digital components failing or being compromised, he said that depending on the sensor, “used data can be stored on the aircraft for later download.” Also aiding a stricken platform are “nearby intelligence assets,” aerial or terrestrial. The official could not discuss interfaces with manned-unmanned teaming entities or other specifics, but noted, “EMARSS leverages network connections to perform cooperative missions with other airborne assets.”

Finally, he underscored the broad-based appeal of the EMARSS program to intelligence organizations and law enforcement, among other stakeholders. “EMARSS has cooperatively developed and incorporated sensor technology with other government agencies, including intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

So, data sharing, interconnectedness and modularity proves a good mix. Cockpit avionics is a key example of the last. Rockwell Collins with sub-contractors Nextant Aerospace and Field Aerospace provide the Army EMARSS planes’ Pro Line 21 software, updated since its 2000 introduction. A suitable choice, the company asserted, as the Pentagon “readies aircraft for future airspace operations … [with] large military and special mission fleets.”

With seven-plus hours of endurance, said the Army, the ISR-remade EMARSS is “capable of performing standalone operations as well as coordinated missions.” Truly a multi-intelligence powerhouse by all accounts.

EMARSS aircraft will be operated by the Aerial Exploitation Battalions (AEB) of the Army’s Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM).

Ronald Rizzo, deputy product manager for medium altitude reconnaissance surveillance systems late last year, said: “With EMARSS, the name of the game is to build on the success of the quick reaction capabilities. EMARSS takes what works with the QRCs and brings them all under a common infrastructure that includes the radios they use to talk to the ground, the BLOS data we use to get back to units at home station and common workstations.” AVS