Competition For JSTARS Replacement Plane Continues As Air Force, Hill Duel Over Proposal To End Program

The U.S. Air Force, which recently announced plans to nix a replacement for its aging E-8C JSTARS ground-surveillance aircraft, is not pulling the plug on the program just yet.

Facing congressional opposition to its proposal, the Air Force said Feb. 13 that it intends to continue reviewing industry bids for the replacement plane at least until the matter is resolved. The three competitors for the “recapitalization” effort are Boeing [BA], Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Northrop Grumman [NOC]. 

An E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft. Photo: Air Force.

An E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft. Photo: Air Force.

“The Air Force is continuing with the JSTARS recap source selection while we work with Congress on the way forward,” said Maj. Emily Grabowski, a service spokeswoman.

Her statement came a day after the Air Force announced in its fiscal year 2019 budget request that it is dropping plans to replace JSTARS with a modified civil jet, opting instead to develop an advanced battle management system (ABMS) that fuses threat information from various sensors to provide a full view of the battlespace (Defense Daily, Feb. 12). 

The Air Force had been aiming to award the JSTARS replacement contract this summer. But in September, service officials said they were concerned that the new aircraft would be too vulnerable to increasing threats, such as advanced air defenses (Defense Daily, Sept. 12, 2017).

The Air Force is in the early stages of defining ABMS, and lawmakers, especially those from Georgia, which hosts the JSTARS fleet at Robins Air Force Base, expressed doubt that the Air Force could field the new battle management system in time to replace the E-8C, which is due to be retired in the mid-2020s.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, “is concerned that the Air Force will not have another battle-ready asset to fill the capability gap between the retirement of the current JSTARS and the debut of a future solution that’s based on technologies that have yet to make it off the drawing board,” his office said in a statement.

Industry reaction was subdued. Boeing said it “understands the U.S. Air Force has many competing priorities to address within the budget. We look forward to working with the U.S. Air Force as it defines its path forward."

Lockheed Martin said it is “disappointed in but respects” the Air Force’s decision. “We are waiting for specific direction from the Air Force JSTARS recap program office on a path forward, but understand there has currently been no change in the source-selection process,” Lockheed Martin added.

Northrop Grumman declined to comment.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, said the Air Force proposal seems risky.

“The belief is that a new airborne ground-target tracker and battle management system will be up and running, based on a mix of unspecified and networked platforms, before the E-8C ages out,” Aboulafia told Defense Daily. “Hopefully, they have a feeling for the resources and technologies needed to make that system of systems happen, but I'm not sure it can all fall into place in time.”

Separately, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) announced Feb. 12 that it has dismissed a Raytheon [RTN] protest challenging the selection of Northrop Grumman to provide the radar for the JSTARS replacement. The GAO said that radar decisions were actually made by the three potential prime contractors for the JSTARS replacement, not the Air Force.

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