Air Force To Study Replacement Options For Command And ISR Planes

The U.S. Air Force is gearing up to launch a study this summer on options for replacing its fleets of large command-and-control (C2) and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) planes, a key general said Feb. 22.

While the analysis of alternatives (AoA) was originally going to look at potential successors to the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, it will be broadened to include other aging, “big wing” C2 and ISR aircraft, including the RC-135 Rivet Joint signals-intelligence plane, said Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, head of Air Combat Command. 

The expanded focus was prompted by the need to address the re-emergence of great-power competition and the growing possibility that large, non-stealthy Air Force aircraft might not be survivable in contested environments, Holmes told reporters at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium here.

That new strategic view has already led the Air Force to nix replacing its aging E-8C JSTARS ground-surveillance aircraft with a modified civil jet. Instead, the service will develop an advanced battle management system (ABMS) that fuses threat information from airborne, space and other sensors to provide a full view of the battlespace.

Holmes offered no timetable for finishing the AoA, saying only that the Air Force will try to complete it “as fast as we can.” As with the Air Force’s JSTARS decision, the AoA could conclude that the best successors to the E-3 and the RC-135 are not necessarily new aircraft.

Despite the JSTARS decision, Northrop Grumman [NOC] continues to develop the radar that was intended for the replacement plane. The radar is modular, so the AoA will examine whether that technology could be useful elsewhere, Holmes said.

The Air Force, meanwhile, has no plans to conduct an AoA on potential replacements for its MQ-9 Reaper ISR-strike unmanned aircraft. But the Air Force intends to give the matter serious thought.

“We need to think through .. how long are we going to fly the MQ-9, what other options are there out there, should we buy modernized airplanes that have the things that we want on them,” he said.  

For now, the service intends to add radars to part of the MQ-9 fleet to track moving ground targets. The radars, combined with the Reaper’s existing electro-optical sensors and weapons, would allow the MQ-9 to “close the whole kill chain with one airplane,” Holmes said.

In addition, the Air Force’s fiscal year 2019 budget request calls for buying 29 more MQ-9s from General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. (GA-ASI). The new aircraft will replace those that are worn out or were lost in combat.

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