DOD reveals plans for its own LAAS project

 - October 18, 2006, 7:26 AM

The Department of Defense (DOD) recently unveiled its program for JPALS, the joint precision approach and landing system. The DOD describes JPALS–which is similar to, and compatible with, the FAA’s GPS local area augmentation system (LAAS), with the addition of a few military bells and whistles–as a critical future system for all Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines aircraft.

At a JPALS industry day at the Patuxent River, Md. Naval Air Station, DOD officials briefed potential bidders on the department’s precision approach doctrine, which calls for the production of 157 airport-based and 288 ship-based JPALS stations, as well as 69 tactical and an unspecified number of manpack stations, to support avionics installations in more than 13,000 aircraft across the four services.

But the DOD doesn’t consider the JPALS unit just another black box to squeeze into the radio stack; in military terminology, JPALS will introduce a new operational “function,” which means it is as critical as the aircraft’s current flight control and management systems and almost as critical as its engines. As a result, the project has been accorded acquisition category 1D status, which typically covers major DOD programs such as a new aircraft or ship.

Navy Captain Barbara Bell, the DOD’s JPALS project manager and lead briefer, explained, “This is a serious program.” Indeed it is. The seven-year, cost-plus, design and development effort alone is estimated to cost around $300 million, and the follow-on five-year production phase could exceed $2 billion, according to industry observers.

JPALS Contract

The competition is therefore forecast to be intense, with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, Rockwell, Raytheon and other major manufacturers that attended the event expected to submit bids. Those major firms are courting potential team members among smaller, highly specialized firms such as Sierra Nevada Corp., which provides the USAF’s Global Hawk UAV with its autoland capability, and QinetiQ of the UK, which achieved a world’s first earlier this year by guiding an AV-8B Harrier to a shipboard vertical autoland.

Yet the DOD is hedging its bets when contract award time arrives next fall. It will award parallel, similar value, development contracts to two separate teams, with a nail-biting “down select” decision after 12 months to determine which team will be allowed to continue. But that’s not expected to dissuade anyone. As one industry representative put it, “This is a big, attractive, long-term program, with excellent overseas sales potential to NATO and elsewhere, and everyone wants to get into it.”

Interestingly, however, the more than $2 billion program will not produce what the FAA would call Category III systems and avionics. The DOD stated that its initial focus will be on achieving FAA-certifiable, Category I-equivalent, 200-and-a-half operation, with unique JPALS autoland capability, and with a tweaked shipboard version employing a non FAA-standard datalink providing 100 feet and a quarter mile with autoland.

Civil Ops Compatibility

Later program increments will reduce land-based system limits to FAA-certifiable 100 feet and a quarter mile, again with JPALS autoland capability, and certain aircraft eventually will be fitted with infrared enhanced vision, presumably via head-up displays, to operate down to unspecified, “autonomous” limits.

In their industry day presentations, DOD officials emphasized the importance of maintaining compatibility with the FAA’s civil LAAS systems, as well as the necessity of observing ICAO international standards. Since the FAA has already invested heavily in LAAS ground station and avionics development, and this knowledge and experience is available to the DOD, industry attendees reasoned that a significant part of the expected $2 billion-plus investment would be devoted to the massive software integration process required across its air fleet, particularly to upgrade what will now become legacy avionics suites and also, especially, to develop and certify autoland capabilities.

So where does the FAA fit into JPALS? Certainly not as a cost-sharing partner: DOD briefing officials emphasized that JPALS is solely a DOD initiative. In any event, the already cash-strapped FAA has no spare funds to offer DOD, and its current LAAS activity is limited to a $5 million contract with Honeywell to investigate and resolve the integrity problems that plagued the Category I system the company provided the FAA, and eventually caused the system to be relegated to R&D status.

Earlier this year, in fact, the FAA’s Steve Zaidman told a NASA/FAA technical symposium that at that time, a business case could not be made for LAAS. Nevertheless, an agency spokesperson told AIN that the FAA remains committed to LAAS and expects to field an upgraded prototype Category I ground station, incorporating Honeywell’s modifications, for testing late next year. [AIN has learned that the FAA and FedEx will conduct these tests at Phoenix.–Ed.]

The FAA also told AIN that the agency and the DOD are communicating with one another on GPS landing system programs, and both recognize the need for JPALS to be compatible with LAAS, since they use similar technology for aircraft that will fly in the same airspace during peacetime operations.

The FAA also noted that since LAAS is comparable to the land-based JPALS stations, the agency’s work on resolving integrity risks could potentially benefit the DOD, especially since both programs use most of the same technical experts and encourage the transfer of unclassified technology and research results.

However, the FAA is not prepared to make any pronouncements about its future plans for LAAS. In fact, days after the DOD’s JPALS briefing, an FAA speaker told a meeting of the top-level government/industry civil global positioning system service interface committee–the nation’s GPS policy-making body–that the agency was once more looking at the wide area augmentation system (WAAS) to provide 200-foot-decision-height Category I precision approach landing guidance. (This will be, it should be noted, the third time the FAA has stated its intent to develop Category I WAAS.)

However, this latest initiative would take effect no earlier than 2008, when new GPS–or European Galileo–satellites are expected to transmit the two frequencies required to overcome ionospheric accuracy errors. But the FAA did not propose WAAS for Categories II or III, since the system cannot meet their much more demanding specifications. On the other hand, the FAA has been traditionally tight-lipped about its plans for future implementation of LAAS Categories II and III in the National Airspace System.

Unquestionably, GPS and Galileo precision approaches down to Category III will arrive eventually. But in the light of current events, civil operators who are holding off on buying new ILS receivers because they’ve heard that the DOD is going for GPS Category I and II, with speculation of a possible similar FAA announcement just around the corner, should hold off no longer. For several years to come, upgrading one’s ILS units will continue to be a sound investment.