E-8C Joint STARS
The Air Force has ignited an effort to replace its surveillance and targeting aircraft system with modern airframes outfitted with new radar, sensors and communications equipment.
No requirements are on the books yet for a recapitalized version of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System — more commonly known as JSTARS — but that hasn’t stopped industry from jumping into the competitive fray.
The current E-8C aircraft, based on a Boeing 707 airplane and developed by Northrop Grumman, allows the Air Force to conduct long-endurance surveillance on moving and stationary targets. Its radar can collect information on ground and maritime targets, as well as detecting slow-moving, rotary and fixed-wing aircraft.
The Air Force considers JSTARS a vital part of its fleet, but the E-8C airframes are aging — contributing to high operations and maintenance costs.
“With the completion of the 2011 JSTARS mission area analysis of alternatives study and the onset of Budget Control Act-directed budget levels, it became clear that the future of the JSTARS weapons system lay in a more cost-effective platform as compared to extending the lifecycle of the current 707 airframes,” said Lt. Col. Michael Harm, JSTARS recapitalization branch chief.
The combination of new airframes and sensors “will inherently bring improvements in areas such as radar and onboard data processing speed, fuel efficiency and maximum cruising altitude across the range of expected military operations,” he told National Defense in an email.
The Air Force is currently drafting requirements for the program, which will be finalized by early 2015, Harm said. In order to keep the system affordable, it plans on using commercial, off-the-shelf equipment and minimizing new technology development.
The Air Force requested $100 million for the program in fiscal year 2015, with $2.4 billion in spending planned over the next five years.
Although the service will try to push the plan, Congress is unlikely to be enthusiastic about another large, expensive program, said C. Zachary Hofer, Forecast International’s defense electronics analyst. Past efforts to develop a JSTARS replacement have been unsuccessful. The service selected Northrop Grumman’s E-10 platform as a successor, but the program was terminated in fiscal year 2007 because of a lack of funding.
The Air Force “got very far along in the process with the E-10 ... only to see that canceled. That’s not something they’re going to want to see again,” he said. “Really the task of keeping the current E-8C JSTARS in the air is just unmanageable. They can’t afford it, and it will increasingly become dangerous. The costs will just grow exponentially, and the platform will be canceled without there being a successor in place.”
The recapitalized JSTARS will be able to work with the entire theater air control system, which includes the legacy system, airborne warning and control system, control and reporting center, and air operations centers, the Air Force solicitation states.
The service is planning on downsizing from an 18-person crew to 13 or less, according to notional documents presented during an April industry week at Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts. The aircraft should be able to reach altitudes of at least 38,000 feet and remain on station for eight hours. It could also include a 13 to 20 foot radar array.
Program managers are also interested in integrating an FAA-certified flight deck and aerial refueling capability. Other potential new features include full motion video and the joint range extension applications protocol — which would allow JSTARS to transmit data to joint agencies at farther distances — currently being tested by the Air Force.
The service could also focus on expanding beyond-the-line-of-sight communications and its interactions with unmanned aerial vehicles, Hofer said. The current system in 2013 exchanged radar data with a Global Hawk. “That’s certainly something that we can see developed in the future — JSTARS acting as headquarters and communicating in a creative way with UAVs.”
“What the Air Force is really looking for is interaction between ground forces, between air forces,” he added. “All of the systems have to speak to each other, and data that’s created in the air needs to be available on the ground. Data created in the air needs to be available to other platforms also in the air, and it may need to be available to mission control in a remote location.”
The service expects to release a request for proposals in the first months of fiscal year 2016 with a contract decision by the end of that year, Harm said. “We are exploring options to accelerate the start of the program due to the maturity of available technology.”
Four new JSTARS airframes are planned to reach initial operating capability as early as fiscal 2022, he said.
Northrop Grumman, prime contractor for the current system, is closely watching the recap program but has not announced its course of action.
“Northrop Grumman continuously assesses a variety of business opportunities where we feel our products and capabilities match our customers’ requirements. We will continue to monitor the Joint STARS recapitalization opportunity as details emerge,” spokesman Bryce McDevitt said in an emailed statement.
The Air Force is currently working out its acquisition strategy, but Northrop will likely compete and be awarded a position as the prime contractor responsible for integrating mission systems with another company providing the airframe, Hofer said.
Harris Corp., Rockwell Collins, Lockheed Martin, L-3 Communications, Raytheon, DRS Technologies and BAE Systems attended the industry week in April and are contenders for providing electronic systems, he said.
Industry week attendees Boeing, Bombardier and Gulfstream are likely to put forward airframes for the JSTARS recap, he said. Representatives from each of the companies confirmed their interest in the program.
Gulfstream will propose either the G550 or G650 to the Air Force, said Steve Cass, the company’s vice president of communications. It plans on partnering with a defense contractor who could integrate mission systems on the platform.
“The G650, with its bigger size, longer range and higher speeds would offer greater capability for the Air Force to address the JSTARS mission,” he said.
The G550 and G650 are smaller than the E-8Cs, which would cut operating costs and allow the new aircraft to operate in “thousands” more airfields than the current system, Cass explained. The aircraft would be able to fly orbits at an average of 45,000 feet. Even at its maximum weight, the G550 and G650 would be able to fly to heights above 41,000 feet.
Both the G550 and G650 can accommodate a 10- to 13-person crew and contain an FAA-certified flight deck, he said in an email. Gulfstream has offered aerial refueling on both aircraft before, but no customers elected to build in that capability.
“We have done the necessary engineering studies to confirm that air refueling … is executable on the Gulfstream aircraft. The engineering involved is pretty simple,” he said. “The design of all our aircraft, with the fuel located in the wings near the natural center of gravity and a simplified fuel management system, lends itself to an effective implementation of air refueling.”
Bombardier is considering offering its Global 6000 business jet, said Krystyna Hranek, manager of marketing and communications for specialized and amphibious aircraft. That aircraft has been modified for military operations as the Raytheon Sentinel flown by the British Royal Air Force. It was also the basis for the E-11A used by the U.S. Air Force for airborne communications relay.
The Global 6000 typically can accommodate eight passengers and four crewmembers, although it could fit as many as 19 passengers depending on configuration and mission needs, according to company material. It can fly about 580 miles per hour and has a range of about 6,000 nautical miles.
Because the aircraft is currently in production, the Air Force would glean savings from leveraging an active supply chain and customer service line, Hranek said.
“We’re hoping our aircraft will satisfy the Air Force needs, but at the moment we’re not into the ins and outs of the actual requirements,” she said.
Boeing intends to compete in the recapitalization program, but the company will not announce its bid until the Air Force formalizes its requirements, said spokeswoman Nanette Feeney.
“When the U.S. Air Force completes the requirements for a JSTARS replacement and in turn shares it with industry, we will assess our family of integrated aircraft and battle management, command-and-control configurations to offer an affordable best value solution.”
Boeing will likely propose a version of its next-generation 737 jets, Hofer said. One of the aircraft from that family, the extended range 737-800, was used as the basis for the P-8 Poseidon. The P-8 will replace the Navy’s P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, and take over missions including anti-submarine warfare and electronic signals intelligence.
The Boeing 737-800 has a 174,200 pound maximum takeoff weight and a range of 3,115 nautical miles, company information states. At altitudes of 35,000 feet, the 129-foot long airplane will cruise at speeds of about 533 miles per hour.
Who wins the competition will depend on whether the Air Force wants to field a larger aircraft that can carry heavier payloads or a smaller, more nimble aircraft that would be able to operate on shorter runways, Hofer said. In the size category, the Boeing 737 is the airframe to beat, “but they could easily look to scale down the platform as much as possible,” resulting in a Global 6000 or G650 selection.
Hofer believes the Air Force will gravitate toward a U.S. manufacturer. That could be bad news for Canadian company Bombardier, but if it involves its Wichita, Kansas-based Learjet subsidiary in the JSTARS program, the company could remain competitive, he said.
European manufacturers Airbus and Dassault Aircraft did not attend the industry week but could emerge as competitors, Hofer said. They would likely propose the A320neo or Dassault Falcon 7X, respectively.
In the meantime, Northrop Grumman is upgrading the computing hardware on the E-8Cs, said Bryan Lima, the company’s director of manned C2ISR programs. Computers will migrate to the Linux operating system, and work stations will be replaced with more modern versions. The company is also upgrading JSTARS’s radar signal processor, he said.
The first aircraft will begin retrofits in July, with modifications taking about a month to complete, he said. The entire process will be finished by the end of 2016.
Hofer said such upgrades will create more of an open architecture environment, allowing the Air Force to more easily plug new equipment into the JSTARS system.
Lima indicated that the company would be able to sustain the airframe “well beyond 2025.”
“As the Air Force makes its decision going forward, we’re fully supportive of whatever they do. We think we can play regardless of how they decide — keep the current platform relevant, if that’s what’s necessary. We’ll continue their vision,” he said.Photo Credit: Northrop Grumman, Andrew Dyubin