US Air Force’s ‘Digital Aircraft’ Concept To Revolutionize Delivery Of ISR Planes To Foreign Military Buyers

The US Air Force has announced a pioneering initiative that will revolutionize the process of acquiring reconnaissance aircraft for foreign military partners. 

The service said that the Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and Special Operations Forces (ISR & SOF) Directorate had established a digital acquisition team composed of junior workforce members who had been tasked to develop a cutting-edge digital light reconnaissance aircraft. 

Termed the Digital PAQuisitions team, this group is driven by a singular objective: to engineer a digital rendition of an aircraft primed and ready for deployment whenever a US foreign military ally expresses interest in procuring a light reconnaissance capability.  

Once a foreign military partner expresses interest in acquiring a light reconnaissance capability, the digital model can be swiftly transformed into a physical aircraft. This is projected to significantly reduce the time required for development, production, and fielding. 

Lt. Col. Christopher Rasor, Materiel Leader for the Directorate’s Light Reconnaissance Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Branch and lead for the digital acquisition team, highlighted the transformative nature of this endeavor. 

1st Lt. Ryan Winz (left), 1st Lt. Matthew Dahn, and 2d Lt. Delaney Pollak, all members of the Digital PAQuisitions team that is working to create a digital version of a light reconnaissance aircraft.

He stated, “Digital acquisitions is a large shift from how we’ve traditionally performed acquisitions, where we built physical prototypes and tested those. We are looking to build digital prototypes and put those through the paces before we build a production-ready asset.”

The advantages of this digital approach are manifold. It is estimated that less than 18 months will be needed to create a digital prototype of a light reconnaissance aircraft, build the physical asset, and deliver it to the customer. 

This stands in stark contrast to the current timeframe of approximately five years required using traditional acquisition methods.

By embracing digitalization, the US Air Force aims to streamline the acquisition process, significantly reducing the time and resources required to deliver cutting-edge assets to its international partners. 

This transformative approach expedites the deployment of crucial reconnaissance capabilities and ensures adaptability and agility in responding to evolving global security challenges. 

Also, the formation of the Digital PAQuisitions team represents a paradigm shift in the industry, signaling a departure from traditional practices to a future defined by digital innovation and efficiency. 

Light Reconnaissance FMS Branch

The US Air Force’s Light Reconnaissance Foreign Military Sales (FMS) Branch is known for its expertise in modifying commercial aviation aircraft for military Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. 

Under this branch’s purview, aircraft like the Beechcraft King Air 350 undergo extensive upgrades, including the installation of tactical radios, video and infrared cameras, and sensor operator workstations, before being deployed to foreign allies for operational use. 

With the advent of digital technology, the branch is poised to revolutionize both its aircraft development and sustainment processes. Currently, the newly formed digital acquisition team within the branch is engaged in laying the groundwork for a transformative leap into the digital realm. 

Their efforts include a wide range of activities. These include crafting digital acquisition documentation and strategic planning, as well as conducting comprehensive market research to gauge the industry’s readiness to integrate with the US Air Force in a digital ecosystem. 

The next milestone on the team’s agenda is the release of a request for proposal (RFP) for its inaugural digital acquisition project. 

U.S. delivers first of three ISR aircraft to Canadian government
The U.S. Army Program Executive Office, Aviation Fixed Wing Project Office’s Product Director International and Transport Aircraft (PM FW-ITA) office delivered one Beechcraft King Air 350 Extended Range platform to the Government of Canada at the L3Harris facility in Greenville, Texas, Feb. 22, 2024.

Leveraging cutting-edge model-based systems engineering and digital product lifecycle management methodologies, the team aimed to develop a bespoke light reconnaissance aircraft tailored to the specific requirements of a foreign military partner in Central America.

Although the press release didn’t specify the potential clients for such an aircraft, a few Central American nations presently utilize ISR aircraft derived from the Beechcraft King Air 350.

This suggests that these countries, namely Costa Rica and Honduras in Central America, might consider becoming customers in the future for such aircraft. 

Recently, the USA delivered one Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) equipped Beechcraft King Air 350 Extended Range platform to the Government of Canada. 

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Meanwhile, reflecting on the significance of their role, 2nd Lt. Delaney Pollak, CENTCOM and AFRICOM Section Commander in the Branch, expressed enthusiasm about being part of this pioneering initiative. 

Pollak added that their objective is to inject a fresh perspective into this digital acquisition project and establish a blueprint that can be replicated across other departments.

Lt. Col. Christopher Rasor explained that the team’s priority was to deliver a light reconnaissance platform to partner nations when it best suits their operational requirements.  

He highlighted digital acquisitions as a pivotal strategy enabling the US Air Force to swiftly deliver this capability, not only for foreign military sales but also for its operational requirements. 

Overall, the digital acquisition team’s ongoing efforts to revolutionize military procurement underscore the US Air Force’s dedication to innovation and adaptability in an ever-evolving global security context.