Proposal to Modernize Air Force Spy Planes Stirs Controversy
The eye-popping estimate by Lexington, a non-profit think thank that is partially funded by defense industry, assumes the Air Force retires all 73 Boeing 707 aircraft that currently perform ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) missions and replaces them with 58 new 737s.
Over 30 years, the maintenance and fuel costs associated with older, four-engine 707s alone would add up to $100 billion, says the author of the study Loren Thomson, Lexington’s chief operating officer.
“Sustainment costs will plummet as aging four-engine planes are replaced with modern twin-engine transports and the Air Force is able to utilize the 737’s global maintenance network,” Thompson writes.
The ISR fleet includes 31 airborne warning and control (AWACS) planes, which average 35 years of age, 17 joint surveillance and target attack radar system (JSTARS), whose airframes average 45 years, and 22 RC-135 Rivet Joint aircraft that average 49 years.
AWACS is used for air surveillance, JSTARS tracks moving targets on the ground, and Rivet Joint planes conduct electronic eavesdropping.
Lexington’s recommendation, if adopted by the Air Force, would be a boon for The Boeing Co., which is seeking to secure customers for its new, more fuel-efficient, line of 737 airplanes.
The study also revives a decade-old debate over how to modernize the Air Force’s aging airframes.
Thompson’s paper appears to have rankled executives at Northrop Grumman Corp., the prime contractor for the JSTARS radar plane. The company for years has pushed back on the characterization of JSTARS as a 45-year-old system and has pointed out that the 707 airframes have been updated. Northrop officials have sought to convince the Air Force that it should equip JSTARS with modern, more fuel-efficient engines, and have argued that the 707 airframes could still fly for many more years. They also contend that the 737 might not have the range or capacity to perform JSTARS’ long-endurance standoff surveillance missions.
A Northrop Grumman spokesman declined to comment for this article. According to one industry source, Northrop’s JSTARS division dismisses the Lexington study as a glaring endorsement of a specific aircraft that ignores key shortfalls in the 737. The industry official, who did not want to be quoted by name, says the 737 would not be able to accommodate the JSTARS sensor equipment and associated power and cooling gear. He says the airframes are adequate for the JSTARS missions. “The 707 is one the best aircraft ever made … it can do transatlantic flights without being refueled.”
Thomson agrees that JSTARS is a “wonderful system” but that economic realities should take precedence over loyalties to particular programs.
His study is not intended to help Boeing sell airplanes, Thomson tells National Defense. “The study is only biased in favor of the affordable solution,” he says. “These older planes are very expensive to operate.”
A four-engine airplane is intrinsically less efficient than a two-engine 737, he says. Another problem with JSTARS is that the Air Force failed to equip it with the latest radar technology package, known as MP-RTIP (multi-platform radar technology insertion program). “It’s expensive to operate for a system that doesn’t have all the latest technology on it,” says Thompson.
Even if JSTARS engines were replaced with fuel-efficient substitutes, the 707 airframe would still be far more costlier to maintain than the 737, Thompson asserts.
Safety also should be a concern, he says. “Nobody has operated jets for this long before. Will they be safe to fly?” Thompson asks. If a mishap occurred, their replacement could quickly become a top priority for the Air Force.
The 707s are “living on borrowed time and once serious metal fatigue or corrosion problems set in, the fleet is likely to decline fast,” Thompson writes in a blog post.
He does not buy the argument that 737s can’t fulfill military requirements. The Navy selected it as the platform for its P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft.
“It is the most widely used jetliner in the world with 10,000 ordered, which means it is cheap to build and cheap to operate,” Thompson says. “Other military services and nations have already adapted the 737 to missions mimicking the roles of Air Force radar planes.”
Thompson’s enthusiasm for the 737 is not new. Two years ago he criticized the Defense Department for delaying the modernization of the ISR fleet. “The Air Force had a plan to replace all three [AWACS, JSTARS and Rivet Joint] with a common airframe, but that was destroyed during the Rumsfeld years by the insistence of some policymakers that surveillance missions be done in the future from space — a ridiculously costly approach that probably would have proved unworkable,” Thompson wrote in 2010. “The space idea didn't go far, but it undermined the plan for a new aircraft, leaving the service with no path forward.” He praised the Navy at the time for committing to buy the 737-based P-8A Poseidon. “Leveraging the $5.5 billion investment in the Poseidon to find a solution for Air Force needs seems like a no-brainer.”
Thomson at the time also criticized the JSTARS re-engine plan that Northrop Grumman was advocating. “The Air Force isn't eager to spend $10 billion or more re-engining and upgrading a handful of decrepit airframes, so buying a variant of the new P-8 looks like an attractive alternative.”
Air Force officials declined to comment on Thompson’s paper.
Service leaders repeatedly have told Congress that they cannot afford a new fleet of airplanes. “We simply don’t have the resources,” former Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.
Looming budget cuts are now a huge concern for every Pentagon program. For the Air Force, allocating funds to buy a new ISR fleet is a non-starter as it struggles to pay for the new aerial refueling tanker and the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, which are the top items on the service’s wish list.
Thomson recognizes that “color of money” issues make it more likely that the Air Force will choose to keep maintaining older aircraft, even it that means it will pay a dramatic cost premium compared to buying new aircraft. Operations and maintenance dollars come from a different stream of funds than those used to buy new equipment. These days, procurement dollars are easier targets for budget cutters than O&M funds.
Another reason why Thompson’s idea might not fly is that the Air Force ISR office is more intensely focused on intelligence analysis and data mining than it is on modernizing aircraft.
Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence Air Force Lt. Gen. Larry Jamestold reporters at the Air Force Association’s annual convention last month that the “biggest thing right now is the data.” The Air Force is seeking new technologies to help analysts process the vast loads of data that are collected by both manned and unmanned aerial surveillance platforms. “At the end of the day, as we look at the future, it’s not necessarily about sensors, it’s not necessarily about platforms — it really is about the data that we consume.”
Photo Credit: Boeing