Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The demand for special mission aircraft is increasing, with militaries across the world looking to acquire armed over-watch to provide special operations forces with deployable, affordable and sustainable manned aircraft systems capable of executing close-air support, help in precision strikes and with armed intelligence.

The growth of the military aviation segment of the special mission aircraft market can be attributed to the growing demand for usage in various special missions carried out by the military forces such as reconnaissance and surveillance operations. Air forces and federal law enforcement agencies around the world are using special mission aircraft for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and border protection activities.
Israel is one of the countries building and acquiring some of the most sophisticated special mission intelligence gathering aircraft globally.

Business jet manufacturers have been producing special mission aircraft for over three decades with more than 1,000 aircraft delivered to governments and militaries worldwide.


Early this year, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) took delivery of a special mission GULFSTREAM G550 from Gulfstream Aerospace to support and enhance their mission-critical surveillance operations.

“Israel has been a Gulfstream special mission customer for many years… With unparalleled performance capabilities, our modified aircraft can fly the demanding missions governments and militaries conduct around the world. Combined with the exceptional reliability our platforms provide and the expertise of our dedicated teams, Gulfstream’s special mission service is second to none,” said Mark Burns, President of Gulfstream.

Israel’s IAI also has delivered special mission aircraft to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and numerous countries worldwide, with IAI considered to be one of a select few companies that possess these technology capabilities in-house. IAI’s ELTA Systems is in charge of the conversion process and offers a host of aircraft for air-to-air, air-to-ground and air-to-sea coverage providing multi-mission Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities. Benefiting from IAI’s aircraft expertise, ELTA has acquired vast experience in converting business or military aircraft into dedicated sophisticated multi-mission ISTAR. IAI currently works with several airplane manufacturers to upgrade aircraft for these operations, including Dassault, Bombardier, Gulfstream, and Embraer.

Bombardier for USAF

Bombardier was chosen once again by the US Air Force to provide a high-performance aircraft. The Bombardier GLOBAL aircraft, known in the business aviation industry for its range, spaciousness and a smooth ride, is a proven, go-to platform for special government missions thanks to its speed, payload capacity, built-in power redundancy, reliability and endurance.

US Representative Ron Estes said, “These Bombardier GLOBAL 6000 aircraft modified and tested in Wichita give our airmen a competitive advantage in flight and communication.” All of Bombardier’s portfolios— from the LEARJET 75 to the GLOBAL 7500, are candidates for conversion into special mission aircraft.

To date, the 6000/6500 series has proven to be the most popular for ISR missions, with “hundreds of thousands of hours flown,” according to Steve Patrick, Vice President of specialised aircraft at Bombardier. In 2018, Bombardier teamed with Lockheed Martin to offer the GLOBAL 6000 to the US Air Force to replace its ageing Boeing 707 JSTARS radar imaging and battlefield management aircraft.

French Order

France recently ordered 12 Dassault FALCON 2000 ALBATROS aircraft equipped for maritime surveillance duties. “It is a high-performance aircraft equipped with a mission system and sensors of the latest generation,” said Dassault Chairman and CEO, Eric Trappier. The ALBATROS is the latest in a line of maritime surveillance aircraft based on various FALCON platforms. It is based on the FALCON 2000LXS business jet and will be equipped with a range of instruments to suit it for a variety of maritime patrol roles, including:

  • Search and Rescue
  • fighting pollution and trafficking
  • surveillance of borders and exclusion zones
  • fisheries policing

Large observation windows will be installed in the forward part of the cabin for visual searches and a Thales SEARCHMASTER multi-mode radar will be mounted in a belly fairing. A retractable Safran EUROFLIR optronics turret will be fitted under the rear fuselage and the aircraft will be capable of air-dropping search and rescue kits. The aircraft will also be equipped with a communications suite tailored to its military and public service tasks.

India not Far Behind

In India, the state-owned Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) is working on several projects to give the Indian Air Force (IAF) dedicated special mission aircraft such as ISTAR and AEW platforms. According to a DRDO official, the multi-intelligence ISTAR aircraft will be based on a high-altitude, high-endurance business-type jet, with the ability to operate over both ground and water. Its purpose is to collect high-resolution imagery using its on-board SAR and EO/IR sensors.

India has also formalised the acquisition of 56 Airbus C295 aircraft at an estimated cost of US$2.7Bn to replace the IAF’s legacy AVRO fleet. “The C295 has proven again as the segment leader, and with the addition of India as a new operator, the type will enlarge its footprint even more, not only on the operational aspects but on its own industrial and technological development,” said Michael Schoellhorn, CEO of Airbus Defence and Space.

Under the contractual agreement, Airbus will deliver the first 16 aircraft in ‘fly-away’ condition from its final assembly line in Seville, Spain. The subsequent 40 aircraft will be manufactured and assembled by Tata Advanced Systems (TASL) in India as part of an industrial partnership between the two companies. The first 16 aircraft will be delivered over a period of four years after the contract implementation. All the IAF C295s will be handed over in transport configuration and equipped with an indigenous Electronic Warfare Suite.

Sukaran Singh, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Tata Advanced Systems Limited, described the sealing of the deal as a moment of pride for Tata and a “milestone” for the Indian military manufacturing ecosystem.

“For the first time, an Indian private company will be wholly manufacturing an aircraft in India. This endeavour demonstrates the Tata Advanced Systems’ capabilities as a defence manufacturer to build globally competitive complex platforms in India,” he said.

New Design from Bell Textron

Bell Textron recently unveiled design concepts for new aircraft systems for military use. The concepts will use Bell’s “High-Speed Vertical Take-Off and Landing” (HSVTOL) technology.

“Bell’s HSVTOL technology is a step-change improvement in rotorcraft capabilities,” said Jason Hurst, Vice President of Innovation. “Our technology investments have reduced risk and prepared us for rapid development of HSVTOL in a digital engineering environment, leveraging experience from a robust past of technology exploration and close partnerships with the Department of Defense and Research Laboratories.”

“Bell’s HSVTOL capability is critical to future mission needs offering a range of aircraft systems with enhanced runway independence, aircraft survivability, mission flexibility and enhanced performance over legacy platforms, ” said the company. Bell also claims that the combinations of new aircraft technology and digital flight control advancements may help evolve HSVTOL technology for modern military missions.

Leonardo, Diamond Tie Up

Meanwhile, Leonardo and Diamond Aircraft Industries have teamed up to offer a version of Diamond’s popular twin-engine DA62 aircraft customised for maritime surveillance missions. The new variant, designated DA62-MSA (Maritime Surveillance Aircraft) will be equipped with a full ISR suite based on Leonardo’s Airborne Tactical Observation and Surveillance (ATOS) mission system. The collaboration is a response to the need for cost-effective, short/medium-range land and maritime surveillance platforms in regions such as South America, Africa and Asia Pacific.

More than 110 twin-engine special mission aircraft have been sold by Diamond and more than 60 ATOS systems are already installed by Leonardo on ten different platforms, including for Italy’s Air Force, Guardia di Finanza (customs police) and Coast Guard and for Australian Customs. With the DA62-MSA, Leonardo and Diamond are able to offer an extremely cost-effective and user-friendly light ISR solution for maritime security needs, with a Take-off Weight of 2,300 kg, endurance of up to eight hours and up to four crew able to operate with land and maritime radar.

While factors such as increasing defence expenditure of countries and growing terrorism activities are driving the growth of the market, lengthy product certification procedures are hampering the growth of the market.