The project manager of an airborne intelligence aircraft program delayed due to a contract termination in 2006 has proposed a strategy to ultimately deliver on the program's promise of providing timely and critical intelligence to ground commanders.

Col. Robert Carpenter, the project manager for Aerial Common Sensors said that strategy will deliver the aircraft's key capabilities first, and then incorporate new sensor technologies as they mature.

"We need to rapidly prosecute the areas of interest to the guys in contact and deliver processed, usable intelligence while it's still relevant," said Carpenter. "That's what ACS will do. The key to that is on-board processing in a dedicated and responsive system."

The ACS concept of operations rests on having aircraft equipped with various sensor payloads overhead with a handful of analysts onboard. Armed with computer power and an information-sharing network, the analysts can "team" with other aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles in order to exploit enemy information.

Providing this capability is the Army program, Distributed Common Ground Station-Army, Carpenter said. Built of software, computers and communications networks, DCGS-A provides tools that allow analysts to gather intelligence data from multiple sources and convert it into analytical products for delivery to the network of Army battle command applications.

Initiated in 2000, Aerial Common Sensor was to enhance the Army's Future Combat System and replace the Army's aging Airborne Reconnaissance-Low and Guardrail Common Sensor fleets.

In 2003, as the Army neared completion of a phase intended to produce initial engineering designs for the aircraft, the Navy and Army formed a partnership intended to share the burden in developing a single aircraft to meet similar requirements - with the Navy replacing their EP3E "Aries" fleet.

The schedule for the next phase in the Army-Navy arrangement would have led to field trials of the pre-production aircraft in 2009 followed by production and fielding of the aircraft completed to the Army in 2017.

In 2005, however, progress halted when during detailed design, the prime contractor informed the Army that the regional class jet that was part of the vendor's proposal was too small to carry the weight of all the mission equipment and sensor payloads.

With the program's past still, "fresh in the memory," Carpenter had to deal with the effects of the contract termination while developing a "way ahead" to get the program back on track.

The contract termination left the Army with a vexing challenge. Its existing fleets had been deemed unsustainable beyond 2017 when ACS would have replaced them, but the contract termination had the effect of delaying the fielding of the ACS fleet to beyond 2017.

The Army addressed the challenge by working with the Department of the Army to re-direct funding that had been designated for the ACS program into a modernization effort of their existing fleets. "For one, they had to address meeting the needs of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, they had to extend the lifespan of the Guardrails and ARLs," said Carpenter.

In 2006, the OSD also ordered the "Joint Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Study" to re-examine how the military branches would conduct their ISR missions. From then until details of the study became known, there were unanswered questions about the future of the ACS program: Considering the advances in technology, was a manned aircraft still necessary' Can unmanned systems and satellites accomplish the same tasks' Would the Army & Navy partnership last'

"The JISR study looked at these issues and validated the importance of manned platforms and the capabilities Aerial Common Sensor will provide," said Carpenter. "We've been focused on developing a successful strategy to deliver that capability."

That strategy, Carpenter said, is guided by the findings of the Defense Department's study and lessons learned from across the Defense Department and from the program's past. The new strategy is being forwarded through the Army headquarters to the Defense Department's senior acquisition executive for review.

That strategy would see requests for industry proposals in the late summer; a formal review and start of the program in 2009, leading to "Increment One" productions models in 2016.

The Increment One version focuses on the heart of the ACS capability, and the most challenging aspect: integrating the computers and communications network with a suite of technologically mature sensor payloads.

"The risk in Increment One will be integration," said Carpenter. Reducing the risk is accomplished by engaging with and requesting information from industry in order to leverage their best ideas and to promote understanding of the ACS concept. In addition, "We must identify and manage risk through solid systems engineering practices."

"This time we're going to ensure that industry really understands the concept of operations and requirements," said Carpenter.

After the Increment One aircraft are fielded, the Army would then incorporate new sensor payloads into the aircraft as their technologies mature in later "increments," finishing with an Increment Four version delivering the most advanced technologies after 2020, according to Carpenter.

The partnership with the Navy would continue but in a different form. "We are pursuing different capabilities, based on different requirements," said Carpenter.

Trying to fit both the Army and Navy requirements on one aircraft would provide the Army more capability than the Army requires and increase risk to the program. Now, the focus is on leveraging payload development ongoing across the DoD.

"We're looking at what they're developing and they're looking at what we've been developing and we're talking about what we can leverage from each other. In the end it is critical that we each are interoperable and compatible with national systems," said Carpenter.

"The key is using other people's money," said Carpenter. "Industry is coming to us with the outcomes of the investments made by other services and we are looking to leverage that."

The ACS program will leverage the investment in the modernization of the Army legacy fleets.

"We have a lot going on in Guardrail that contributes such as the COMINT (communications intelligence) subsystem. We're also learning a lot about manned and unmanned aircraft teaming from the theater of operations," said Carpenter.

Manned and unmanned teaming is an Increment One capability for ACS.

"Before we were going after the "big bang" approach: We were trying to deliver everything at once, and if you do that you can fail. But, right now we're doing great work with our current fleet and we can build on that with manageable risk. We asked is it more important to put every sensor into the aircraft or make it part of the network'

"The answer lies in the middle; capable sensor payloads, both dedicated and responsive but networked to provide persistence," said Carpenter.