Northrop Grumman [NOC] continues to supply upgrades to the Air Force’s E-8C joint surveillance target attack radar system (JSTARS) aircraft as the service hones its plan for a follow-on network of systems.
The company was awarded a $17.5 million contract for a fifth-generation upgrade to the aircraft’s central computers on Sept. 27. The upgrade, which includes 16 aircraft, will serve as a “low-risk pathfinder” for the service to maintain fleet capability as it develops the details of the advanced battle management system (ABMS) meant to replace the JSTARS aircraft.
The first computer replacement program was completed in 2001, the company said.
Northrop Grumman has also recently updated the JSTARS fleets’ radio terminals. The company received a contract in 2017 to develop the Air Force Tactical Receive System-Ruggedized (AFTRS-R) capability, which will replace the current commander’s tactical terminal/hybrid-receive only radios. The new systems will address cryptographic and diminishing manufacturing source issues with the existing terminals.
The contract included a 14-month period of performance, but Northrop Grumman completed the work in 12 months, said Dianne Baumert-Moyik, a company spokeswoman. The Air Force is currently integrating the systems onto its JSTARS fleet, she added.
The aircraft offer battlefield commanders all-weather, real-time situational information and transmit target locations to aircraft and ground strike forces. The E-8C fleet has flown in every major U.S. combat operation since Desert Storm in 1991, though the first production JSTARS aircraft was not delivered until 1996. Northrop Grumman delivered its final E-8C production aircraft in 2005.
The service’s fiscal year 2019 presidential budget request eliminated funds to replace the JSTARS fleet, and the ensuing appropriations bill signed into law on Sept. 28 ensured that the recap effort is officially dead. Northrop Grumman, Boeing [BA] and Lockheed Martin [LMT] were all vying for the $6.9 billion engineering, manufacturing and delivery contract.
Air Force officials have offered few concrete details regarding the advanced battle management system that will eventually replace JSTARS, except to say that it will be a “system of systems” that will incorporate data received from a mixture of manned platforms such as E-3 AWACS aircraft and unmanned systems such as the MQ-9 Reaper.
Air Combat Command Commander Gen. James “Mike” Holmes said in a September interview with Defense Daily that the focus of the next several years will be on trying to make sure that all of the sensors the Air Force is already using can be “tied together and that that information can be analyzed and brought together into a picture that everybody can use.”
He noted that while Congress agreed to cancel the JSTARS recap, the Air Force now has to keep all 17 E-8C aircraft currently in operation. The service originally wanted to retire three aircraft that had become “hangar queens” and could be used for spare parts, Secretary Heather Wilson said in early 2018.
“Since we still have the JSTARS, we’ll be focused on how do you proceed with the connectivity parts of bringing all that information together,” Holmes said.
The fiscal year 2019 defense appropriations bill includes $30 million for the Air Force to continue development of a new ground moving target indicator radar, and $120 million in additional procurement funds for the MQ-9 to “accelerate advanced battle management system,” according to budget documents.
The bill also directs the Air Force to submit a report to Congress within 90 days of the bill’s enactment that includes “a revised ABMS plan and execution strategy, updated costs and schedules of each activity within the ABMS plan, and a gap and threat assessment of both the ground moving target indicator and battle management command and control mission areas.”