Primes Line Up to Compete for JSTARS Recap Program

By Stew Magnuson


The next version of the Air Force’s joint surveillance and attack radar aircraft will have a smaller airframe, along with updated radar, communications and battle management suites.

But JSTARS is a recapitalization program, not something new, Col. David Learned, the program’s senior material leader said.

“The war fighters want the existing capability — what they have in the field now — but at a reduced lifecycle cost,” he said in an interview. This is not a developmental program, he stressed. In fact, the Air Force has colored the first round in the procurement process as an “engineering contract.”

“We’re recapitalizing a combat proven capability,” he said.

The Air Force-Army JSTARS E-8C carries a radar that provides intelligence on the movement of ground forces, plus a battle management system. The current fleet was built from second-hand Boeing 707-300 aircraft, which are expected to come to the end of their service lives in the early 2020s. As older airframes, they are expensive to operate and maintain.

After the Air Force’s self-proclaimed top three most important acquisition programs — the joint strike fighter, the long-range bomber and aerial refuelers — the service considers JSTARS its “number four” priority, Learned said.

“From my perspective, the Air Force has been all in,” he added. The program is fully funded in fiscal year 2015 and he hoped for the same in 2016. There is $2.4 billion budgeted through the following five years.

William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, cautioned that programs such as JSTARS, when it comes to budgets, can be dicey. It could be another three years after the preliminary design review when the Defense Department gives the green light to proceed.

“There’s always these programs that are right on the edge. … That’s what I warn people about — particularly in this [budget] climate that we’re in today — that just because you start a milestone A, the real commitment won’t come for about three years,” he said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies speech.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall doesn’t approve programs unless he is assured that they are fully funded and the service can afford them, he added.

Before coming to a final budget decision, contractors will have to reduce the technological risks, LaPlante added.

Learned said this will be an integration challenge. The four main components that will have to work together are a new business-class sized jet, the radar, a communications suite and a battlefield management command-and-control system.

There is “a tight coupling to the legacy requirements,” he said. Those were first written some 40 years ago. “The only difference is where modern technology is available and provides better performance,” he said.

The Air Force is planning to place these same requirements in a smaller aircraft, which will be one of the technological hurdles, he said.

“We do expect to go with a new commercial derivative business-class jet,” he said. It will be smaller, more reliable and will allow operations with a smaller crew. Plans call for the crew number to shrink from 18 to 10.

“We will have to rely on automation to perform some of the missions that the existing crew does,” he added.

The key will be nondevelopmental technology — or at least very little of it — Learned said. So far, the Air Force has not spelled out to potential vendors the requirements for the subsystems beyond the original program’s specifications. It does want the latest radar, communication suites and battlefield management systems, but they must be at a high technology readiness level, he said. The program wants “proven performance.”

“We also want affordability throughout the lifecycle and agility. So we will focus on those key things within the subsystems we think we might need to replace or update,” he said. That means an open architecture where components can be easily swapped out when something better comes along.

Northrop Grumman is the current prime contractor for the program. Flying jets that were already used when the Air Force acquired them has proven costly. With the current fleet coming to the end of its life, there is a sense of urgency.

“I can’t tell you how long the legacy fleet will be kept alive. But that was the impetus for this program and what’s driving us to be a recap and deliver a capability as soon as we can to the war fighter,” Learned said.

The program is expected to award up to three pre-engineering manufacturing and development contracts in August. Learned could not disclose which vendors had responded to the Air Force request for proposals, however, incumbent Northrop Grumman, and rivals Boeing and Lockheed Martin have all announced their intentions to compete.

Alan Metzger, vice president and integrated product team lead for next-generation surveillance and targeting at Northrop Grumman’s military aircraft systems division, said its consortium, which includes business jet manufacturer Gulfstream and L-3 Aerospace Systems, is the best for the job because of its track record with JSTARS and other Air Force platforms.

“We have decades of proven battle command-and-control experience,” he said. The Gulfstream G550 model it is proposing will be able to provide better speed, range, altitude, reliability and endurance and at a lower cost than the legacy platforms.

“We think that the attributes that it has fit the mission very nicely,” he said. L-3 will bring its integration expertise and communications products. Northrop has yet to choose a radar, he said. It is still evaluating the options. “There are a few different manufacturers out there that exist, including Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and others,” he said. The team will make a selection on the sensor as the Air Force further defines its requirements.

He confirmed that there aren’t a lot of details yet.

“I will tell you that the requirements that we have seen are commensurate with what’s performing today on the existing JSTARS platforms,” Metzger said. “It’s up to us to figure out how to put the proper configuration and architectures together to satisfy those specs,” he added.

After the three possible pre-EMD contracts wrap up in about 2017, the Air Force will have an open competition for the final EMD phase where one prime integrator will be chosen.

At that point, new entrants may come in, or the three competitors may reconfigure their teams. The relationships with the subcontractors are not exclusive, company executives said.

“Who knows how it will play out and whether there will be reteaming?” Learned said.

Lockheed Martin also announced its team when it chose Bombardier for the business-class jet, and Raytheon for the radar system and communications suite.

“We have done a tremendous amount of work on battlefield management command and control — BMC2 — using the Air Force’s new open mission system architecture standards,” said Jack O’Banion, Lockheed Martin vice president of strategy and customer requirements. “Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have been the most prolific contractors in executing those contracts in both classified and nonclassified programs,” he said.

“And we’re now leveraging that body of work to create the BMC2 suite that will be the centerpiece for integrating JSTARS,” he said.

Montreal-based Bombardier has a stable of business-class jets to choose from, many of which have been converted to military use in overseas programs, he noted. Its Global 6000 aircraft are optimized for remote locations where customers can’t always depend on support being there.

“Raytheon has done a tremendous amount of work on the existing JSTARS solution and how to package a complex comms suite like that onto an aircraft and not have interference issues,” he added.

O’Banion reiterated what the Air Force said. It wants low-risk, low-cost technologies. “They are certainly interested in taking advantage of the latest technology provided that the [technology readiness] level is high and it’s not going to drive up the risk of the program or create an expansive development activity.”

The main hang-ups on such programs have been integrating the subsystems and creating the software that makes it all work together. That is the one area where there may be some developmental technology, he said.

“I think software is a concern for most programs that are incorporating and integrating technology,” he said.

“I can’t tell you at this time how much software development is going to be required to make that happen, but I can tell you that that subsystem integration is a key risk for us,” Learned said.

Boeing is not making any announcements as far as its possible team members, company spokeswoman Nanette Feeney said. It is offering its own 737-700, the smallest of its class, as the business-size jet, she said.

Learned said: “There is technology available now to meet our requirements. Whether it’s two teams or three teams, we’re just trying to prove that it’s out there.”

The winner of the EMD phase will build three test aircraft. The Air Force is aiming for 2023 for its initial operating capability, he said.

The new aircraft is going to address a lot of top cost drivers of the legacy JSTARS including manpower, maintenance and fuel. It’s going to be more reliable and require less upkeep along with improved mission performance, he said.

“It’s also going to allow us to have that strategic agility to make future changes in a competitive environment to address future threats. It’s going to provide a fantastic upgrade over the existing capability,” Learned said.

Photo Credit: Air Force

Topics: Aviation

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