With most “firsts” in aviation history, fixed-wing aircraft’s relation to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) can be traced back to the Wright brothers. The first fixed-wing aircraft procured by the U.S. Army for ISR operations was the 1909 Wright Military Flyer, a 40-horsepower biplane built for observation missions. Secured for $30,000, the 1909 Flyer ushered in a new era of ISR. 

ISR has advanced in leaps and bounds since that first Wright Flyer. With remote-operated drones, information warfare, and stealth aircraft, Army fixed-wing aviation has placed the U.S. at the forefront of ISR.

There are three basic tenets of Army fixed-wing aviation:

  1. Special Electronic Mission Aircraft (SEMA) 
  2. Transport aircraft
  3. Mission support aircraft 

Transportation is the most widespread part of the Army’s fixed-wing mission, forming the backbone of the fixed-wing fleet. But the second-largest part of the fleet deserves some respect, too. The Army’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) fleet has evolved over the years into a lethal part of the Army’s overall aviation presence.

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Now, let’s talk a little bit about the ISR aviation fleet, how it’s evolved, and what it looks like going forward.

What Is ‘Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance?’

As the name suggests, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) is the practice and art of collecting data from opposing forces. Of course, as the missions evolve over the years and decades, the practices move from strictly sniffing out the enemy or opposing forces to observing civilian populations in occupied areas.

A white ISR aircraft taxis the runway for takeoff.
The Army's fixed-wing ISR fleet is a lethal piece of national defense.

If there is anything we have learned from our forays into Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, it’s that determining friend from foe in dense urban clusters is no easy task.

One of the best ways, or at least the most efficient ways, to collect information is aerial assets. While helicopters have been used in ISR missions in the past, their limitations are significant. These include:

  • Short-range capabilities
  • Low loiter time
  • Altitude restrictions
  • Limited airspeed
  • Highly inefficient

All of these factors are serious strikes against using a helicopter for ISR work. Their altitude limitations keep them within the dangerous range of most heavy machine guns and MANPADS, as do their airspeed limitations. Also, they are much less efficient for the orbiting work associated with ISR operations.

Why Does the Army Have an ISR Fleet?

Why doesn’t the Army outsource its aerial ISR demands to the Air Force? That seems like it is more or less in the wheelhouse of the Air Force. But, speaking with a retired Air Force intelligence analyst non-commissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) of the 7th Special Operations Group, we learned the differences between Army Intelligence and Air Force Intel demand separate operations.

When comparing and contrasting Army and Air Force ISR fleets, the necessity for each branch to conduct its own ISR becomes clear. For example: 

  • Differing intel systems and practices demand specialized personnel
  • Army and Air Force division structures support different missions
  •  Advancements in technology requires teams to focus on their objectives, rather than objectives of other military branches

Let’s take a closer look at the features and differences in Army and Air Force ISR.

Army and Air Force ISR Intel Systems and Practices

Military branches differ greatly in intel systems and practices. While the ideas are similar, you could not take an intel analyst from one branch and drop them into another branch. The Air Force is concerned with intel gathering for its aerial missions, e.g., threats to air superiority, missiles, and long-range bombers.

The Army has intel concerns about what they do, which is ground combat and occupation. Yes, like it or not, occupation is a core tenet of the Army’s doctrine. They need ISR practices and platforms dedicated to their mission. The best-acquainted personnel to handle ISR for the Army are those who are already in the Army; why outsource a soldier’s job to an airman?

But it goes beyond this. While there have been plenty of situations over the past twenty years where Army and Air Force aircraft were sharing air bases, the Air Force prefers to have further standoff distances for their fleets than the Army. The Army will always be right in the middle of the heat, considering occupation is their doctrine. The Air Force isn’t designed to occupy; it is designed to help invade, then sustain.

A Beech (Raytheon) RC-12P Guardrail engages its landing gears during descent.
ISR platforms differ greatly between Army and Air Force.

Army and Air Force ISR and Division Structures

The Army is an interesting animal. From the outside, an infantry division looks like an infantry division. The 1st ID looks pretty much like the 3rd ID but with a different patch. However, that’s not how it works. Each division is designed for a different type of operation. The 10th Mountain Division is a light infantry division, a different type of infantry than the 101st Airborne or the 1st Cavalry. While the Military Occupation Specialties (MOSs) are interchangeable, the missions are not.

The Army structures each division according to its designed purpose. Airborne divisions are heavy on air transportation assets. While the Army did piecemeal a lot of fighting units in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a whole, it isn’t designed this way. The idea is that each division is a fully contained fighting unit. So, part of their aviation brigades includes ISR assets. The aviators and sensor operators are indoctrinated in their divisions' specific missions, needs, and demands. In this way, there is no confusion about what kind of intel and information is important and needs to be gathered.  

Advancements in Technology for ISR Fleets

Beyond infantry division structures and special missions assignments, the Army and Air Force require separate ISR fleets to keep up with and maintain state-of-the-art ISR technology. Asking one branch to oversee ISR across the military could place the Air Force and Army at severe disadvantages, especially with the constant upgrades to ISR technology. 

Recent and future technological upgrades to Army ISR include:

With constant need to outpace our adversaries in modern warfare, maintaining separate ISR fleets keeps our Army and Air Force at the forefront of technological advancements for their respective missions and objectives. For example, the HADES program will improve Army aerial ISR systems through:

  • better communications intelligence, or COMINT
  • improved signals intelligence (SIGINT)
  • advanced synthetic aperture radar (SAR)
  • increased moving target indicator (MTI)

All of these improved features will allow the Army to detect enemy movement faster and more effectively, keeping our soldiers safer and civilian populations unharmed. At the same time, advanced Army ISR opens up Air Force ISR to stay on mission, providing reinforcements for our brave men and women in combat.

What Airframes Are the Preferred ISR Platforms?

One thing the military branches have worked toward since WWII is stripping away unique airframes and adding missions to existing ones. The logistics are far more streamlined when you support one airframe, which may have ten derivatives, instead of ten unique airframes. No, they have not completely done away with unique airframes (the Army is adopting a unique aircraft for their fixed-wing transition program instead of just co-opting the T-6 that the Air Force & Navy both use), but the DoD has made headway in these efforts.

A Beechcraft MC-12W Liberty idles on a runway, awaiting takeoff.
Preferred ISR platforms have changed over the years.

It helps when the base platforms are so versatile. The prime mover for Army fixed-wing aviation is the C-12 Huron, which is a Super King Air. Different versions of the C-12 are derived from the -200, -300- and -350 series King Airs, but they all share significant parts similarities and, from the pilot’s perspective, similar performance envelopes and common operating procedures.

The C-12 provides great loiter time, and its operating altitude keeps it farther from harm than helicopters can operate.

Also, maintaining a single common airframe sharply reduces retraining costs and learning curves. A pilot can easily and quickly transition from a ‘slick’ C-12A or D to an MC-12W without going to a schoolhouse.

The Army also operates a fleet of DHC Dash 7 aircraft for ISR work, which is a large, four-engine aircraft built for Short Takeoff & Landing (STOL) operations.

A child poses in front of a DHC Dash 7 aircraft during Military Child Appreciation Day.
The DHC Dash 7 is instrumental in Army ISR work.

Both airframes can be operated from austere, high/hot airstrips and unimproved strips, making them ideal for Army operations that generally demand something other than manicured airports.  

What Modifications Are Made to ISR Airframes Over Standard Cargo or Utility Models?

While they look extreme on the ground, the modifications are only additions of antennas and assorted domes to the aircraft and in no way change the overall structure of the aircraft. But yes, an RC-12 Guardrail certainly has a jarring appearance the first time you see one in person. It is covered in antennas, which are there specifically to support signals intelligence (SIGINT) gathering.

For the unacquainted, SIGINT means gathering anything that produces a signal. In Iraq, it was cheap burner phones. It can be Ham radios, CB radio, or other short-range radio traffic, phones, and just about anything else. To handle it, the RC-12 family has antennas capable of snooping in on all kinds of traffic.

On the other hand, the MC-12 appears about the same as a slick C-12 except for a radome on the belly and a dome on the top of the fuselage. The differences are in the interior; instead of VIP seating, it is loaded with ISR gear and top communications equipment.  

Do the Added Systems Make ISR Aircraft Less Reliable?

No, the added systems do not change the reliability of the aircraft at all, at least not the primary functions of the aircraft. If the aircraft was unreliable to start with, ISR equipment doesn’t make it any less reliable.

Some aircraft may have additional electrical power generation, which required huge additional generators in the old days, but thanks to advances in efficiency, those aren’t an issue anymore. The best example was the QU-22 Pave Eagle, a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza outfitted for ISR work in Vietnam.

A gray RC-26B sits on a landing strip during the day.
The RC-26B has conducted ISR for both the U.S. Army and USAF.

As a general rule, the ISR systems are isolated systems that are not integrated into the main aircraft operating systems, so if they go offline, the aircraft will continue to fly as intended.

Are There Special Considerations in Maintenance & Logistics for ISR Aircraft?

There certainly are some special surface maintenance processes that must be observed for ISR aircraft. Antennas and sensor packages are extremely sensitive and delicate, so special care is needed. But beyond taking care of these items, there aren’t any new maintenance or logistical considerations for the base airframe.

However, the flip side of this is that there is no ISR capability if the base airframe isn’t reliably maintained with quality parts and maintenance packages. One of the best ways to keep the ISR fleet healthy is with high-quality parts kits and maintenance kits. Your preventative maintenance processes are the greatest predictors of high mission capability rates. 

We here at Greenwood Aerospace have experience building and supplying the right parts for your mission when you need them. Request a quote, or contact us at contact@governmentprocurement.com, and one of our expert representatives will be in touch.

Parting Thoughts

The world of Army fixed-wing aviation cannot afford to sit back and wait for support to materialize. When you need parts, you need them yesterday. Fortunately, years of experience have shown us that breakages are rarely a one-off, unique event. Generally, some systems consistently nag at maintenance. We can outfit your program with maintenance kits, MIL-SPEC packaging, and parts kits tailored to the demands and needs of your mission, whether you conduct DV mission support or ISR missions. Whatever your mission, reach out to our team to see what we can do for you!

Let Greenwood Aerospace Support Your Flight Program Through Fixed-Wing Aircraft and Parts Procurement 

Ready to partner with us for all your fixed-wing aircraft and parts procurement needs? With over forty-one years’ experience working with all branches of the U.S. military—along with the largest defense contractors in the country—Greenwood Aerospace has the knowledge and expertise to ship the parts you need when you need them. Contact us now, and one of our expert representatives will respond within one business day. 

Interested in a short-term contract, or have other parts procurement needs? Request a quote or email us at sales@governmentprocurement.com, and we will get back to you with the information you require.

We look forward to working with you!