Northrop Grumman Proposes to Accelerate JSTARS Deliveries
By Allyson Versprille
SAVANNAH, Ga. — Northrop Grumman says its proposed Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft could be ready to begin service in 2021, three years faster than the current Air Force plan.
The JSTARS recapitalization program will replace the current inventory of aging E-8C JSTARS, which are modified Boeing 707-300 aircraft. Air Force solicitations call for a smaller airframe in the business jet class, reduced crew size from about 18 to 10 airmen, an open architecture and the integration of currently available technology with high technology readiness levels.
"If you take the [analysis of alternatives] in 2011 and you take the [full operational capability] date of 2027 — 16 years — that's an awful long time," said Alan Metzger, vice president and integrated product team lead for next-generation surveillance and targeting at Northrop Grumman’s military aircraft systems division. "At the end of the day we think we can go a lot faster," he told reporters.
Originally, the Air Force projected IOC in 2022 and FOC in 2025. The current plan pushes those dates back to 2023 and 2027, respectively.
The adjustment was based on a variety of reviews, internal issues and budget constraints, Metzger said.
He said the new timeline could pose a problem for the service in the future because between 2022 and 2028 the Air Force is expected to face a major budget crunch as it seeks to fund the F-35 joint strike fighter, the KC-46 air-refueling tanker and the next-generation long-range strike bomber.
"Right now what we know … is the Air Force has close to $6 billion in the [program objective memorandum] over two FYDPs [future years defense programs]," he said. Whether that funding will be enough remains to be determined, he added.
In August the service awarded three pre-engineering and manufacturing development contracts to Lockheed Martin, Northrop and Boeing. Lockheed received an award of about $11.5 million and
Northrop and Boeing received about $10 million. The contracts are set to wrap up in July 2016.
Northrop has partnered with business jet manufacturer Gulfstream and L-3 Aerospace Systems. The company has yet to decide whether Northrop or Raytheon will provide the radar system for its offering, Metzger said.
Company executives listed several reasons why they believe their consortium has an advantage over other competitors, one being the performance and features of the Gulfstream G550 that the team is planning on using as its main platform.
The Gulfstream G550 can fly up to 51,000 feet at speeds up to Mach 0.885, according to a product fact sheet. It is powered by two Rolls-Royce BR710 engines, and can reach 41,000 feet in 25 minutes, said Troy Miller, regional vice president for military and special mission sales at Gulfstream.
Metzger said the capacity to reach higher altitudes would ultimately increase the field of view for military surveillance.
"You can put the biggest radar on the biggest jet you have and if you fly at an altitude lower than something that flies higher you're not going to see anything else because you've got blockage — ground blockage, rocks, complex terrain," he said. "There are larger radars out there, but at the end of the day you can't really take advantage of them if you can't fly them any higher."
Northrop does not plan on changing the configuration of the outer mold line for the Gulfstream aircraft, which is already certified, Metzger added. "That's a different methodology than maybe some of our competitors have where, depending on their particular offering, they go into the stringers and substructure of the aircraft and beef it up."
He said the team has been flying a G550 JSTARS prototype for the last three years. The prototype has about 60 to 70 percent of the modifications it needs, which improves "speed to ramp," he said.
One specific modification was to the rear end of the aircraft to install a liquid cooling system for prime mission equipment such as the radar.
Metzger noted that as the current prime contractor for the JSTARS program, Northrop has the benefit of experience on its side. "I think we understand the mission better than anybody because we've been doing it for three decades," he said. "We understand what it takes to … do airborne ground wide area surveillance."