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Thursday, May 26, 2011

L-3 Wescam's John Vandenberg, Director of Army and Special Programs

Discussions with John E. Vandenberg, director of Army and special programs for L-3 Wescam, during and after the April 2011 Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A) Convention in Nashville, Tenn.

By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor

I had just been taken for a demonstration ride in Bell 407 helicopter fitted with L3 Wescam MX-15i and MX-10 targeting systems positioned under the aircraft, fore and aft. The idea was to take off, fly away from the airport for around 30 minutes to allow me, as a novice user, to experiment with the different lenses at different targets at a range of distances—from a look down under the aircraft to a point where we had both systems looking at an static fixed-wing aircraft sitting on the apron at a different airport at a range of around 10 km. Examining the images on the specially fitted screens in the rear passenger compartment of the helicopter, my immediate impression was that the resolution of the image and its stability of focus at that range with the larger system was impressive—people walking around the aircraft were clear to the extent that a fully briefed intelligence operative would have got useful information out of the picture (I can say this having sat in UAV operational control rooms in Iraq and Afghanistan watching the video feed).

During our discussions, John Vandenberg, director of Army and special programs for L3 Wescam, said that it was his company’s objective to overcome the confusion they still believed existed over the quality of such targeting and imaging systems now available to the U.S. Army, particularly in respect of the Kiowa Warrior OH-58D and UH-60M Black Hawk requirement going forward.


MX-15 fitted on a Kiowa Warrior. Photo courtesy L-3.


“The purpose of Wescam’s OH-58 with the MX-15 and MX-10 in the booth [during the convention] and the 407 flight demonstration was to provide the U.S. Army with hands-on proof of our internally funded risk reduction efforts to provide state of the art and cost effective targeting systems. The MX-15 and the MX-10 on the 407 demonstrated the in-flight surveillance, range performance, geo-pointing and targeting capabilities of the systems.

Vandenberg went on to say: “In an era of fast-paced asymmetrical combat operations, decreasing budgets and risk adverse program management plans … the key to successful implementation of high performance targeting systems such as the MX-15 and MX-10 involves reducing the cost/schedule and technical risk of the aircraft integration process and deploying tactically superior systems to theater in months rather than years or decades. While system acquisition cost is a major factor, integration and life cycle costs can quickly overshadow the initial investment.”

He said that the company’s recent success stories included the fitting of MX10 systems to Schiebel Camcopter S-100s owned by the United Arab Emirates Air Force, which had ‘turned around’ the capability that was now being provided. He also said that the 30 Bell 407AH helicopters being provided to the Iraqi Air Force will all have MX15 turret systems, giving them a better capability than U.S. aircraft currently in-country.


Bell 407 used for L-3 Wescam's demonstration of MX-15 and MX-10 (front and rear) sensor systems. Photo courtesy L-3.

Wescam’s partnering and investment in rapid prototyping, together with its partnerships with companies such as Mace Aviation and Cantine Armament, was key to its competitive product offering.

In summary, Vandenberg outlined L3 Wescam’s three-pronged approach to the market:
• a family of systems where the MX-20, MX-15 and MX-10 share a common interface, and modularity of imaging and laser payloads allowing advances in one system to be leveraged across the ‘family’. This was coupled with inherent stability that provided high-resolution optics, laser targeting, geo-pointing and system reliability.
• a ‘product’ approach rather than a ‘program’ to allow for ongoing improvement and technology spirals.
• the provision of ‘plug and play’ solutions that allow retrofit and replacement of older systems, compatible with an aircraft’s existing software and hardware. The U.S. Army’s LUH MX-15i and Armed 407 are recent examples.

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