The Army's push to buy a new fixed wing utility aircraft continues as the service acquisition leaders finish up the requirements process and get ready to start an analysis of alternatives study to replace up to 112 airframes with a common platform.
The Army has used a motley crew of mostly C-12 Huron turbo-props to make up its relatively small fleet of fixed-wing aircraft that have supported transport and intelligence collecting missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.
Army leaders have bought many of the turbo-props over the past decade without common platform standards as the service has rushed to install intelligence sensors to get the low tech planes in the air and collecting intelligence for ground commanders.
Unmanned aerial vehicles have gotten most of the credit for the spike in aviation intelligence over the past ten years, but fixed-wing prop planes have also played a major role. The Army and Air Force have both ramped up their turbo prop fleets to fly intelligence missions where a pilot and intelligence team was needed in the air.
Army aviation leaders are finishing the Future Fixed Wing Utility Aircraft's initial capabilities document to define what that plane should look like and what performance metrics it must meet, officials said.
Of the 377 aircraft that make up the Army's fixed wing fleet, the service has 73 different series of aircraft and 40 different designs. To help manage this wide array, the Army stood up Program Executive Office Aviation.
Col. Brian Tachias took over as the program officer. He said the service needs a common utility fixed wing aircraft to take the onus off pilots and maintainers.
"A common cockpit and platform will reduce the amount of resources needed to train pilots and sustain the aircraft," Tachias said. "Moving to one common fleet will reduce the manpower needed and allow us to gain efficiencies by reducing the number of contracts."
The capabilities document is already in Pentagon staffing. The next step is the analysis of alternatives study. Army aviation and intelligence leaders will work together on both.
Army leaders don't expect to require a significant development program for the Future Fixed Wing Utility Aircraft and instead use much of the data they've collected from the turbo props they've flown this past decade.
Questions, however, loom over how this program will differ than the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance Systems, which is one the Army is using to buy King 350 planes outfitted with intelligence sensors. The first four will soon start the aircraft's first forward operational assessment when they deploy to Afghanistan.
Analysts have questioned how the Army will sell the differences in the two programs to Congress in order to get it funded.