Northrop Grumman [NOC] has locked down its industry team that will compete to replace the Air Force’s fleet of E8-C wide area ground surveillance and battle management aircraft.
Northrop Grumman said June 12 that it selected business-jet manufacturer Gulfstream as airframer, along with General Dynamics [GD] and L-3 Communications [LLL] as partners in the competition to replace the 17-aircraft Joint Surveillance, Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). Gulfstream is a GD subsidiary.
Lockheed Martin [LMT] and teammate Raytheon [RTN] announced a JSTARS bid in February without selecting an aircraft. Reports surfaced that L-3 was a member of that team. An L-3 company spokesman told Defense Daily only that it has a firm agreement with Northrop Grumman.
Lockheed Martin is competing for JSTARS recapitalization program but could not share any details for this story, said spokesman John Kent.
Northrop Grumman is looking to hold the program for which it has been prime for more than 30 years, teamed with Boeing [BA] to build and maintain the current JSTARS fleet based on a Boeing 707 commercial aircraft. Gulfstream will provide its G550 business jet with L-3 serving as systems integrator and aircraft modification specialist.
The G550 has been used as a testbed aircraft for the required JSTARS radars, sensors and systems. The company would not say whether it could export the configuration to other, larger Gulfstream aircraft like the G650, though company spokeswoman Kirsti Dunn did not rule out that possibility.
“The ultimate platform is dependent upon the Air Force’s final requirements,” said Steve Cass, vice president of technical marketing for Gulfstream Aerospace.
“Gulfstream offers the best possible combination of performance, cost-effectiveness and availability,” Gulfstream President Larry Flynn said in a statement. “This team’s Joint STARS recap proposal marries the extensive and varied experience of this team with the advanced and proven technology of Gulfstream business aircraft, resulting in a mature, non-developmental, ramp-ready solution for the Air Force.”
The main question that published requirements will answer is whether the Air Force is looking for another commercial-size aircraft or if the aerial surveillance and command and control mission can be done with a smaller crew in a smaller, more affordable aircraft. When Northrop Grumman previously tried to replace the JSTARS fleet with a modified Boeing 767-400ER, the plan went over budget and was scrubbed.
What is generally agreed upon in industry is the Air Force needs an aircraft that can reach altitudes of at least 38,000 feet and loiter for at least eight hours. It should be able to carry a radar array 13 to 20 feet in diameter, as well.
Company officials at Gulfstream and other business jet manufacturers have said that technological advances have allowed for shrinking radar and computer systems so they can be contained within smaller airframes. The Air Force’s desire to go from a crew of 18 down to at most 13 is also indicative of their wish to have a smaller aircraft, a Gulfstream executive said at the 2014 Air Force Association annual meeting in Orlando, Fla.
Northrop Grumman’s announcement makes Boeing, which is offering the smaller 737, the lone declared competitor offering a commercial aircraft derivative.
The Air Force also published documents earlier this year that indicated it would accept bids from international aircraft manufacturers as well, which would open the door to European companies like Airbus, Dassault and Bombardier. None of those companies so far have announced bids for the program.
Affordability is key in a program that is fighting against marquee programs like the KC-46 tanker, F-35 and long-range strike bomber for funding. The Air Force plans to spend $2.4 billion over the next 10 years to recapitalized the JSTARS fleet. It netted $100 million in the current fiscal year for the program.
Both the House and Senate versions of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act fully funded next generation JSTARS. The Air Force in its 2016 budget request decided to slip retirement of the E-8C and push initial operating capability of the next-generation aircraft to 2023. That puts pressure on delivery of the replacement aircraft, given that the E-8C is scheduled to retire in 2025.