The U.S. Army Wants New(ish) Spy Planes

Ground combat branch would take over contractors’ aircraft


The U.S. Army is planning to buy three spy planes in the next fiscal year. The idea is for the ground combat branch to own more of its own specialized equipment—and rely less on expensive civilian contractors selling spy flights by the hour.

The Army recent equipment program report outlines the proposed purchase. The total cost of the Bombardier Dash-8s, along with their special equipment and support, could exceed $130 million.

The three aircraft are just the start. Last summer the ground combat branch announced it wanted to buy as many as nine Airborne Reconnaissance Low-Enhanced—or ARL-E—aircraft.

The Army hopes to save money by taking over existing Dash-8s already doing government work on contract, rather than starting from scratch on a clean-sheet plane design. The plan is for the Army to buy five Dash-8s that contractors currently fly on the government’s behalf in Afghanistan.

Civilian firm Dynamic Aviation flies or has flown this type of aircraft for the Army as part of projects code-named Desert Owl, Radiant Falcon and Saturn Arch. The Dash-8s carry special radars and cameras to help them spot enemy activity.

After the five aircraft in Afghanistan, the other four ARL-Es will have to come second-hand from other sources. Bombardier no longer makes the specific Dash-8 model the Army has in mind.

The Dash-8 is popular in the military. The U.S. Air Force flies an older Dash-8 variant it calls the E-9A Widget to corral people away from missile tests.

The Pentagon also uses civilian-style fixed-wing planes as aerial spies and secretive transports. We usually don’t hear much about the aircraft unless they crash.

A Q200 transport variant from the 524th Special Operations Squadron crashed in Mali in 2009—the wreckage can be seen above. The Sierra Nevada Corporation lost a “Prospector” intelligence type in Latin America last October. This aircraft was flying for U.S. Southern Command.

The Army hopes the first five ARL-Es will be ready to go by 2016 or 2017. The planes will replace the older ARL types, which have been flying since 1993.

The ground combat branch also hopes to replace the RC-12X Guardrail/Common Sensor with ARL aircraft sometime between 2020 and 2030.

The Army is planning to add full-motion video cameras to these RC-12 aircraft as an interim solution. At the moment, the RC-12s are equipped only for picking up enemy radio chatter.

The ground combat branch is also working hard to add more tricks to its rapidly expanding fleet of MQ-1 drones. Manned aircraft might become less important if unmanned spies get more capable.

In the meantime, it looks like new(ish) Dash-8s are set to become the Army’s next spy planes.