JSTARS Replacement: Competition Opened Wide

E-8C JSTARS: Battle stations

Inside the E-8C
(click to view full)

July 27/18: Successor The US Air Force’s fleet of E-8 JSTARS is earmarked for retirement by the mid-2020s. The National Defense Authorization Act endorses the Air Force’s plan to replace the E-8 JSTARS with a new network of sensors spread across unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft, called the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). The USA’s 17-plane E-8C Joint Surveillance Targeting and Attack Radar System fleet’s ability to monitor enemy ground movements over very wide areas, while seeing through problematic weather conditions, has made it an invaluable contributor to every US military ground campaign over the last 15+ years. In the future the E-8’s role will be filled by the MQ-9 UAV. The ABMS is a network of de-centralized systems, which fuses the data from hundreds of sensors to provide situational awareness for combatant commanders across the globe. The current NDAA provides $120 million for the accelerating the development of the ABMS and its integration onto the MQ-9.

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E-8C JSTARS Connectivity (click to view larger) The USA’s 17-plane E-8C J-STARS (Joint Surveillance Targeting and Attack Radar System) fleet’s ability to monitor enemy ground movements over very wide areas, while seeing through problematic weather conditions, has made it an invaluable contributor to every US military ground campaign over the last 15+ years. Other countries are finally introducing similar capabilities, but the JSTARS fleet size, maturity, and array of functions make it a unique class asset for America’s entire alliance structure. All Boeing 707 family E-8 Joint STARS aircraft are assigned to the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base, GA, a “total-force blended wing” with active-duty Air Force, Army and Air National Guard personnel. An asset like that needs to be kept current, or replaced with something that is. E-8 planes have received both system upgrades and R&D work, in order to improve aircraft readiness and operating costs. A 3rd round of upgrades is beginning, but the USAF seems to be leaning toward a limited future for its battlefield surveillance and relay planes. Improving JSTARS JT8D pod on E-8C (click to view full) Plans to improve JSTARS have focused on 3 main areas. […]

E-8 JSTARS Connectivity

E-8C JSTARS Connectivity
(click to view larger)

The USA’s 17-plane E-8C J-STARS (Joint Surveillance Targeting and Attack Radar System) fleet’s ability to monitor enemy ground movements over very wide areas, while seeing through problematic weather conditions, has made it an invaluable contributor to every US military ground campaign over the last 15+ years. Other countries are finally introducing similar capabilities, but the JSTARS fleet size, maturity, and array of functions make it a unique class asset for America’s entire alliance structure. All Boeing 707 family E-8 Joint STARS aircraft are assigned to the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base, GA, a “total-force blended wing” with active-duty Air Force, Army and Air National Guard personnel.

An asset like that needs to be kept current, or replaced with something that is. E-8 planes have received both system upgrades and R&D work, in order to improve aircraft readiness and operating costs. A 3rd round of upgrades is beginning, but the USAF seems to be leaning toward a limited future for its battlefield surveillance and relay planes.

Improving JSTARS

JT8D pod

JT8D pod on E-8C
(click to view full)

Plans to improve JSTARS have focused on 3 main areas.

One is the planes’ aged Pratt & Whitney TF33-102C engines. By 2011, an R&D program had proved out a replacement concept involving PW’s JT8D-219 engines in a pod-based kit, but the USAF hasn’t funded fleet conversion.

The 2nd area involves the aircraft’s electronics, which age out at a faster pace than other components. The entire force was upgraded to Block 20 status in 2005, but the use of commercial hardware and software standards only solves part of the problem. The canceled E-10A had already made big investments in an updated Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) mission suite, but adding BMC2 to existing E-8 aircraft would involve substantial rewiring and other “deep maintenance” work. That’s time-consuming and expensive.

Proteus MP-RTIP

Proteus & MP-RTIP pod
(click to view full)

The 3rd area involves the planes’ radar and sensors. J-STARS operations have to contend with their AN/APY-7 radar’s limitations, which have been underscored by the challenges inherent in campaigns against stateless terrorists and counter-insurgency fights. One is that the radar has to “break track” with a target, in order to collect an image. Another is the radar’s resolution, which is adequate to find tanks and ground vehicles, but doesn’t reach the under 1 meter resolution of current technologies. It isn’t difficult to imagine that a J-STARS or Global Hawk would need to perform wide area scans, while focusing with higher resolution on one target of interest, and occasionally taking high-resolution synthetic aperture radar pictures for transmission to HQ or other platforms, all at the same time.

The E-8C J-STARS can’t do that at the moment, but the architecture of AESA radar arrays is making this sort of thing possible on platforms like advanced fighters. Understandably, the USAF wanted this capability for its reconnaissance aircraft. A new AESA radar called MP-RTIP was originally developed for the (canceled) E-10A JSTARS replacement, with a claimed 5x – 10x resolution improvement over the JSTARS’ APY-7. A smaller version will now be mounted on Global Hawk Block 40 UAVs, and one obvious approach would be to equip E-8s with a full-size MP-RTIP or a similar radar.

The cost of that conversion has pushed the USAF away from that idea, while looking at other methods to improve the platform. The JSTARS Radar Modernization (JSRM) replaced 2 radar receivers with 1 modern receiver, improving resolution and tracking. 2011 tests added a keel beam accessory bay (KAB) behind the APY-7 radar, and installed a high-resolution MS-177 multispectral camera for sub 1-meter resolution and target identification. The KAB could accommodate other sensors instead, which would add flexibility to the platform. A February 2013 test even added MP-RTIP, after a fashion. It showed that E-8s could stream MP-RTIP radar data from a RQ-4B Block 40 UAV for analysis on board, then use the E-8’s superior communications systems to distribute the results.

JSTARS Upgrades: Current Plans & Progress

E-8C new engines

Re-engined JSTARS
(click to view full)

In April 2013, the USAF’s FY 2014 JSTARS budget entry explained some of the program’s remaining parameters. They break down into 2 main areas. One is Spiral Development, and accompanying efforts to keep training systems up to date. The other is the core electronics problem of parts that are going out of production, called “Diminishing Manufacturing Sources.” The submission also explained what happened to the re-engining program.

Re-engining. The USAF has terminated the re-engining program without completing System Design and Development, though they did develop a design and successfully fly an aircraft with it. What’s left? Completion of all logistics development tasks and operational tests.

Spiral Development. This involves various technology development/insertions to enhance target identification, data processing & transmittal, and weapon control capabilities, such as:

* JSTARS Net Enabled Weapons (JNEW) and Joint Surface Warfare (JSuW). JSuW-JNEW activities include participation in the JSuW Joint Capability Technology Demonstration (JCTD) and Engineering and Manufacturing Development for Network Enabled Weapons (NEW) which includes, but is not limited to Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Air Surface Warfare-Anti-Surface Warfare (JASSM-ASuW).
* JSTARS Radar Modernization (JSRM). The JSRM activities apply MP-RTIP receiver technology to JSTARS, replacing 2 current receivers with a single receiver based on modern technology.
* Blue Force Tracker (BFT).
* Battlefield Airborne Communication Node (BACN) compatibility, allowing the E-8 to work with the USAF’s airborne communications relay and translation fleet of EQ-11A Global Express jets, and EQ-4B Global Hawk drones.
* Combat identification and future program planning for Analysis of Alternatives recommendations.

Future program planning activities include but are not limited to:

* Modular equipment enclosure (MEE)
* Automatic identification system (AIS)
* Analyst support architecture (ASA) software
* Common data link (CDL) integration

Spiral development also supports requirements that arise quickly under current and future Urgent Operational Needs (UON), quick reaction capabilities (QRCs), top-down directed efforts, requirements definition, capability gap analysis, pre-Milestone A (MS A) technical risk reduction activities, Blue Force Tracker, multi-agency communication capability (MACC) and the Air Force tactical receive system (AFTRS) radio replacement for the integrated broadcast service (IBS) data, other large airborne platform integration efforts including self-defense suite (SDS), and radar & aircraft performance improvements. Equipment developed under spiral development are procured under Kill Chain Enhancement-MN-38203.

Avionics Diminishing Manufacturing Sources. Av-DMS efforts deal with electronics that are either out of production or about to be. Fixing the problem could involve buying a lot of spares, but it often involves redesigning affected systems to use modern electronics. JSTARS has a long list, and its efforts include, but are not limited to:

* Aircraft Information Program (AIP)
* Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS)
* Communications
* Navigation
* Surveillance and Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) upgrades
* Control and Display Unit (CDU) Replacement
* Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT)
* Flight Data Recorder (FDR)
* Electronic Flight Bag (EFB)
* Mode 5 Identification Friend or Foe (IFF)
* Embedded GPS Inertial (EGI) with Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Module (SAASM)/M-Code GPS
* Digital Multi-Function Flight Display (Attitude Direction Indicator
* Horizontal Situation Indicator and Attitude Heading Reference System)
* Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B)
* A new flight management system (FMS)
* Flight director
* Instrument Landing System (ILS) Marker Beacon multi-mode receiver (MMR)
* Digital engine instruments.

Additional Modernization efforts include interoperability with manned and unmanned platforms (q.v. Feb 25/13 entry); space data links; advanced Battle-Management Command and Control (BMC2) concepts; 8.33/25 kHz VHF Radio with Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) voice and data communication; ISR Constellation; Air Moving Target Indicator (AMTI – can detect low, slow-flying aircraft); Advanced Radar Modes (ARM); Aided Target Recognition (ATR); Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR)/Enhanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ESAR); Network Centric Collaborative Targeting (NCCT); and Beyond-Line-of-Sight (BLOS) Network Architecture Upgrades (BNAU).


Pilot interview

Over the last couple of years, there has been some progress, but that’s winding down as the USAF prepares to implement its set of modifications:

FY 2011 Accomplishments: Completed JSuW Link 16 JCTD; continued JSRM radar receiver development; completed SYERS (MS-177 multispectral camera) demo in new keel bay extension; continued Avionics DMS development; completed Enhanced Land Maritime Mode (ELMM) SDD and began production; continued CNU-JTRS replacement development; continued 8.33/25 kHz Radio with SINCGARS retrofit; continued PME DMS RASP SDD; FVB mitigation; Analysis of Alternatives; QRC efforts; and Spiral Development. Supported non-recurring engineering activity including development; FAA Certification; Flight Testing; Flight Performance Manuals; Pneumatic SDD (bleed air); Maintenance Training.

FY 2012 Accomplishments: Completed JSRM radar receiver development and began flight demo; Continued Av-DMS [Diminishing Manufacturing Sources] development and studies; Completed BNAU [SATCOM upgrades] design, and began BNAU integration and test; Continued Flight Viability Board (FVB) mitigation, QRC efforts, and Spiral Development. MIDS-JTRS tests successful, and it’s approved for E-8C fielding. Completed CNU-JTRS SDD design, integrate, test and Link 16 Concurrent Multi-Netting (CMN)-4/2,Dynamic Net Management(DNM), and Link 16 Enhanced Throughput (LET) study.

FY 2013 Plans: Will complete JSRM radar receiver flight demo, will complete Av-DMS development and studies, will complete BNAU integration and test, and will continue FVB mitigation, QRC efforts, and Spiral Development. Completed manned-unmanned interoperability test with Global Hawk Block 40 UAV and its MP-RTIP radar.

FY 2014 Plans: Will continue FVB mitigation, QRC efforts, and Spiral Development. Upgrade contract awarded (q.v. Oct 22/13).

Competition, and the E-8’s Future

P-8 AGS w. SDB-Is & JSOWs

P-8 AGS concept
(click to view full)

The envisioned JSTARS upgrade program has faced continued delays, and continued shrinkage. Its current $110 million estimate is just 4% of Northrop Grumman’s initial Plan B suggestion, which indicates a focus on keeping the fleet operational rather than enhancing it significantly.

Meanwhile, competitors are proposing alternatives, as advancing technology brings similar or better capabilities within reach of smaller aircraft.

Boeing began by proposing a $5.5 billion program to replace the E-8C fleet with a derivative of its 737-based P-8A Poseidon sea control jet, instead of paying that estimated amount to upgrade the E-8Cs with new cockpits, sensors, and engines. Boeing’s P-8 AGS would include the Raytheon-Boeing Littoral Surveillance Radar System (LSRS) or its AAS successor, Raytheon’s AN/APY-10 multi-mode radar in the nose, some of the E/A-18G Growler electronic attack plane’s ESM electronics for detection and geo-location of electro-magnetic emissions, and an electro-optical surveillance and targeting turret. Because they use current radar technologies, the P-8A’s surface-looking radars are reportedly already competitive with JSTARS. A P-8 derivative would also give the USAF space and integration for weapons or additional sensors, while keeping the P-8’s new civil-compliant avionics, new mission electronics, new airframe, and the lower operating and maintenance costs of a smaller, more advanced, and widely used jet.

Boeing’s unofficial proposal led Northrop Grumman to counter with a less expensive “Plan B” radar improvement option, using 1 foot x 8 foot cheek fairings derived from its top-end APG-77 and APG-81 fighter radars. This would be combined with a keel beam accessory bay (KAB), which can also include other sensors like long-range cameras for positive personal identification. Northrop Grumman contended that this would drop the E-8 fleet’s upgrade price to around $2.7 billion: $900 million for re-engining, $500 million for new APY-7 receivers and exciters, $1 billion for the cheek array, and $300 million for avionics upgrade and battle management improvements.


UK: Sentinel R1
(click to view full)

After 2013, it appears that the USAF would rather spend that kind of money on new jets that offer modern capabilities from the outset, and cost much less to operate. 737s are cheaper to run than 707s, but several competitors are looking even smaller, to business and regional jets from Bombardier, Embraer, and Gulfstream. Initial solicitations are due soon, and the USAF is imagining a modern fleet beginning to enter service around 2022.

Raytheon has already created the ASTOR Sentinel R1 for Britain, using Bombardier’s Global Express. Brazil uses Embraer’s P-99B, based on their ERJ-145. Lockheed Martin’s Dragon Star/ Net Dragon MULTI-INT rental uses a Gulfstream III, and they’ve been working with Italy in Afghanistan. Boeing offers their P-8 as a base, and they’re also supplementing it with a smaller Bombardier Challenger 604 MSA offering, which borrows the P-8’s core mission systems. The P-8A’s mission system will soon be programmed to include overland radar surveillance, so the MSA’s only barrier will involve mounting an appropriate radar.

If the USAF can’t find any recapitalization money because of budget-swallowing programs like the F-35 fighter, their options will shrink. The Northrop Grumman Global Hawk UAV family’s continued momentum in the face of USAF opposition could leave the USAF dependent on USAF RQ-4B surveillance and EQ-4 BACN communications fleets to perform lesser slices of the E-8C’s roles, with the hope that improvements over time would allow flying over a wider range of conditions, and broaden each UAV’s capabilities. NATO’s pooled RQ-4B Block 40 AGS fleet would also be available for a set number of hours each year.

The US Navy could also take over a chunk of this role. USN P-3Cs have already been used for overland surveillance in CENTCOM, and their 737-based P-8A Poseidon replacements will gain an extremely capable surface-looking AAS radar by 2019 or so (P-8A Increment 3). Poseidon’s MQ-4C Triton UAV companion is a Global Hawk derivative with its own surveillance capabilities, including an advanced surface-scanning AN/ZPY-3 AESA radar that’s currently optimized for maritime surveillance.

Contracts and Key Events

FY 2015-2018

Replacement competition.

E-8C JSTARS: Battle stations

Inside the E-8C
(click to view full)

July 27/18: Successor The US Air Force’s fleet of E-8 JSTARS is earmarked for retirement by the mid-2020s. The National Defense Authorization Act endorses the Air Force’s plan to replace the E-8 JSTARS with a new network of sensors spread across unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft, called the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS). The USA’s 17-plane E-8C Joint Surveillance Targeting and Attack Radar System fleet’s ability to monitor enemy ground movements over very wide areas, while seeing through problematic weather conditions, has made it an invaluable contributor to every US military ground campaign over the last 15+ years. In the future the E-8’s role will be filled by the MQ-9 UAV. The ABMS is a network of de-centralized systems, which fuses the data from hundreds of sensors to provide situational awareness for combatant commanders across the globe. The current NDAA provides $120 million for the accelerating the development of the ABMS and its integration onto the MQ-9.

January 11/18: Protest—GAO Verdict A protest by Raytheon has been rejected by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), paving the way for Northrop Grumman to provide the new radar as part of the US Air Force’s JSTARS recapitalization program. Raytheon had offered its Archimedes radar for the JSTARS recap, while Northrop were offering a radar of their own. Companies vying for the prime contract spot—Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop—were permitted to submit two proposals: one with Raytheon’s Archimedes and another with Northrop-manufactured one. Northrop are no doubt delighted with the GAO’s decision as the firm is, at present, guaranteed a major role on the JSTARS recap program even if it loses the prime contracting spot. However, the USAF is currently reconsidering whether the current recap program is the best strategy to replace the E-8C fleet and plans to make a final determination in the fiscal year 2019 budget, meaning that Northrop’s victory may be short lived if the program is ultimately canceled. Raytheon is currently exploring its legal options.

January 5/18: Incident An incident before Christmas involving engine failure on an E-8C JSTARS aircraft, caused damage to a total of five aircraft in the ground surveillance fleet. Based at Warner Robins AFB, Georgia, the engine failed on December 21 during a maintenance test run on a crowded ramp by the runway, spewing debris from the engine around the ramp and parking areas. Three of the five damaged aircraft returned to flight status within three days, while a fourth was said to be repaired in the early new year. The fifth is believed to be still grounded, but none of the Northrop APY-7 radars installed inside the aircrafts’ belly were damaged. Each E-8C—a modified Boeing 707-300—is powered by four Pratt & Whitney TF33-102C engines, a 1950s design derived from the once ubiquitous P&W JT-3. A re-engining program for the aircraft was cancelled in 2011, and the USAF is currently considering whether to cancel a competition to select a business jet platform to replace the E-8C fleet, and restart it with a platform that could survive in contested airspace. Flight operations were reportedly not affected by the incident.

November 30/17: Contract Protest Raytheon is contesting a US Air Force (USAF) decision to reject its Archimedes radar—a derivative of the APS-154 Advanced Airborne Sensor found on the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft—from the service’s E-8C JSTARS replacement program. While the USAF has yet to officially announce rival Northrop Grumman as the winner, the flying branch did notify Raytheon that Archimedes was no longer under consideration, prompting the firm to file a protest with the US Government Accountability Office on 20 November. Both Raytheon and Northrop are still under contact from an award last year to carry out radar risk reduction work and Raytheon has maintained that it will continue its work on the JSTARS radar risk reduction effort. Speaking to Flight Global, a Raytheon spokesperson said its “radar solution for the JSTARS program offers the air force the most mature and capable technology available to meet this urgent need,” adding that “the evaluation process had significant flaws, and we have filed a protest accordingly.”

December 30/16: A request for proposals (RFP) has been released by the USAF for the replacement of the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS). $6.9 billion has been earmarked for development and production of the new aircraft, with interested parties required not to offer used, reconditioned or remanufactured platforms. The radar system for the new platform will be a separate competition involving offers from Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.

September 28/16: E-8C JSTARS aircraft grounded due to maintenance concerns are back flying again. Issues surrounding a radar mishap had resulted in four E-8Cs undergoing a USAF launched independent investigation following their delivery from depot maintenance at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Lake Charles, Louisiana. One aircraft experienced water damage to the Northrop APY-7 radar after the glassfibre canoe did not properly drain water.

September 26/16: Maintenance work carried out on USAF JSTARS aircraft by Northrop Grumman, has resulted in four of their fleet being grounded over concerns with the quality of the work. The four planes are being inspected for any possible safety of flight issues on the ground at Robins Air Force Base, GA, home of the 116th Air Control Wing. Assembly of an independent review team is also underway which will be tasked to “inspect and validate quality assurance processes at the contractor’s depot,” according to a service spokesperson.

March 28/16: Raytheon and Northrop Grumman have been awarded “not-to-exceed” contracts by the USAF for $60 and $70 million respectively. The award is for both companies to further develop their competing long-range, wide-area surveillance radars systems as part of the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) program. One supplier will then be selected in either late 2017 or early 2018 to supply 17 units, to be attached to 17 yet-to-be-determined business jets built by one of three competing suppliers – Gulfstream, Bombardier or Boeing.

February 23/16: The USAF has pushed back the awarding of its contract for the Joint Surveillance Targeting and Attack Radar System (JSTARS) program by as much as six months. It had been reported in January that sole-source contracts were soon to be awarded to both Raytheon and Northrop Grumman for the further development of their competing active electronically scanned array radars. The revision of the acquisition strategy has been said to reduce overall program risk by giving more time in the early stages of JSTARS development.

January 28/16: Northrop Grumman and Raytheon look set to be awarded sole-source contracts by the USAF for further development of their competing active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars as part of the Northrop Grumman E-8C JSTARS recapitalization effort. Foreign proposals for the radar development were ruled out by the government, but they are accepting foreign airframes for the plane’s replacement. Once the program is completed, the radars will form the centerpiece of the E-8C’s replacement aircraft, which will be based on commercial business jets.

October 7/15: A senior Air Force official has revealed that budgetary constraints may kill off the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) recapitalization program. William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, stated on Tuesday that given sequestration and competing priorities, the program could now face the axe, a particularly poignant point given that the Pentagon recently blocked the program from moving to its demonstration phase, known as Milestone A. The announcement will undoubtedly spook the three contractors currently working on the early development for the program, following the awarding of engineering and manufacturing development contracts in August.

September 30/15: The Defense Department has blocked approval of a move to advance the JSTARS recapitalization program into its demonstration phase, known as Milestone A. The program, intended to field a replacement for the Air Force’s fleet of E-8 Joint Surveillance Targeting and Attack Radar System aircraft, kicked off in August, with the Air Force handing out three contracts to fund pre-engineering and manufacturing development work. The hold-up could be down to the Air Force’s funding strategy for the program, or potentially a changing requirement set.

September 14/15: Raytheon is remaining non-aligned as the competition for the Air Force’s JSTARS replacement program, offering its wide-area radar to the three competing industry teams. The three primes – Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman – were handed pre-engineering & manufacturing development contracts in August, with these now partnered with other industry partners to offer competing bids for the $6.5 billion program. The three teams are offering modified commercial designs, with Raytheon’s Skynet radar design expected to enter production in coming years.

August 11/15: The Air Force has handed out three one-year contracts to further develop competing designs for the JSTARS replacement program. The competition to replace the fleet of Northrop Grumman E-8Cs is scheduled to lead to a production contract before the JSTARS fleet is retired from FY2019. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were each awarded pre-engineering and manufacturing (EMD) contracts – Boeing and Northrop Grumman each approximately $10 million, with Lockheed Martin receiving the largest at $11.5 million – as a risk-reduction measure ahead of a planned production contract expected in late 2017. A Request for Proposal (RFP) is anticipated ahead of this date, with the Air Force planning to award two EMD contracts for test aircraft, followed by a further contract for three low-rate initial production aircraft.

June 17/15: Following Northrop Grumman, L-3, General Dynamics and Gulfstream’s lead, a competing team of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Bombardier are now positioning to compete for the Air Force’s JSTARS recap program. Raytheon and Lockheed Martin had previously announced their intention to partner for the competition, with Bombardier set to bring their long-range business jet to the team, to complement Raytheon’s sensor portfolio and Lockheed Martin’s system integration expertise. The Air Force has also opened up the competition to European firms.

June 15/15: Northrop Grumman has partnered with General Dynamics, Gulfstream and L-3 to compete for work on the Air Force’s Joint STARS (JSTARS) recap program. In March the Air Force opened up the competition to European firms, with other US competitors including a Raytheon/Lockheed Martin team, with the JSTARS replacement program pushed back in February to a revised deadline of 2023. The newly-announced team will most likely base their replacement platform on the Gulfstream G550 business jet.

March 11/15: Air Force throws competition open to European aviation firms. Airbus, Dassault and Bombardier may now be invited to compete for a JSTARS replacement. The initial decision to attempt a replacement with a Boeing 767-based airframe with Northrop Grumman was cancelled due to gushing costs. The Air Force is opening it up to international competition. The service also indicated that it would like to see an airframe that is smaller than the original JSTARS Boeing 707 E-8C.

Feb 19/15: Lockheed teams with Raytheon. Lockheed is teaming with Raytheon in its bid for the JSTARS replacement program, bringing its active array sensor technology to the competition. Other competitors include Boeing, and incumbent Northrop Grumman. The JSTARS replacement program was pushed back a year to 2023 with the Administration’s initial budget announced a couple weeks prior.

Nov 17/14: What’s next? Northrop Grumman hasn’t made any commitments regarding the pending E-8 JSTARS replacement competition (q.v. June 17/14), except to say that they will participate. They have a solid base to build on from their E-8 JSTARS, their MP-RTIP radar now flying on RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 40s, and their effort to develop the canceled E-10A’s command and battle management system. They’re even doing advance testing already:

“Since this whole thing began, we’ve been doing all of the required things you would expect in terms of risk reduction, requirements analysis, trying to understand the system architecture,” [Alan Metzger] said. Northrop has refined its battle management command-and-control software and integrated it with assorted computers, communications systems and sensors within a Gulfstream 550 testbed.”

Why the G550? It is flown by Israel in AEW&C and SIGINT/ELINT roles, but the real reason is that it’s basically the smallest aircraft under consideration for the role. If you know what’s possible there, you have a known lowest baseline to adjust from, depending on what the USAF’s RFP spits out. With that said, this course of action does convey a pretty clear sense in the industry that the USAF is looking for something a lot smaller than the E-8C. Sources: NDIA Magazine, “JSTARS Contractor Joins Modernization Competition”.

FY 2011 – 2014

JSSIP III restrained improvements contract; Demonstrations: Advanced camera sensor, Streaming for Global Hawk radar data; USAF leaning toward replacement not upgrades.

E-8C plane

(click to view full)

June 17/14: What’s next? The USAF is looking at options for recapitalizing JSTARS, with Initial Operating Capability of 4 planes by 2022, in order to counter escalating operations and maintenance costs. The planes need to accomodate about 13 crew and a 13? – 20? radar, stay on station for 8 hours with aerial refueling capability for more, and reach 38,000 feet. The USAF plans to ask for $2.4 billion over the next 5 years, but the dollars don’t really exist to launch another major USAF program. Hence USAF JSTARS recapitalization branch chief Lt. Col. Michael Harm:

“With the completion of the 2011 JSTARS mission area analysis of alternatives study and the onset of Budget Control Act-directed budget levels, it became clear that the future of the JSTARS weapons system lay in a more cost-effective platform as compared to extending the lifecycle of the current 707 airframes.” ….The Air Force is currently drafting requirements for the program, which will be finalized by early 2015, Harm said. In order to keep the system affordable, it plans on using commercial, off-the-shelf equipment and minimizing new technology development.”

Boeing is expected to enter its P-8, which is already configured for the mission and the above requirements once the LSR radar is added. Added costs would be limited to expansion of communications links and software development, and Navy commonality would be a big plus.

Raytheon’s Sentinel R1 already serves in the JSTARS role with Britain’s RAF, and the smaller Bombardier jet needs ongoing system and software development to reach its full potential. Operating costs would be lower, expanding the current USA-UK Airseeker RC-135V Rivet Joint ELINT/SIGINT partnership to encompass Sentinel R1s is a thinkable option, and Bombardier can lean on Raytheon and/or its Learjet subsidiary as the American lead. Aerial refueling might be the issue, given Sentinel’s configuration and the USAF’s insistence on dorsal boom refueling.

Gulfstream is looking to do something similar by partnering up and offer either the G550, which is already in use by Israel and its customers in AEW&C (CAEW) or ELINT/SIGINT (SEMA) variants, or the longer-range G650. They say that the’ve done the design work for aerial refueling, but haven’t had a customer take them up on it yet. E-8 JSTARS lead Northrop Grumman, who led the canceled E-10A program and retains key technologies, is a very logical partnering choice. With that said, Lockheed Martin has their own expertise to offer, and their Dragon Star ISR aircraft-for-lease is a Gulfstream.

The USA’s default option, of course, is to do nothing. The E-8C fleet would then become vulnerable to future fleet-sized USAF cuts. Meanwhile the P-8As would field in the Navy and informally take over some of the JSTARS role, alongside USAF UAVs like RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 40 and its EQ-4 BACN counterpart. Sources: NDIA National Defense, “Industry Ready to Compete for JSTARS Recapitalization Program”.

Oct 22/13: JSSIP III. Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Melbourne, FL receives a sole-source $414.5 million indefinite-delivery/ indefinite-quantity Joint STARS System Improvement Program III contract, with a combination of firm-fixed-price, fixed-price-incentive-firm, and cost-plus-fixed-fee elements. the. JSSIP III aims to improve E-8C performance, capability, reliability and maintainability, but won’t touch the plane’s engines.

Sources in Washington suggest that the scope of this program has been squeezed repeatedly from all sides, as the contractor and USAF worked hard to find new solutions, and a common ground that can attract and keep funding. What emerged was a minimalist upgrade focused on replacing operator work stations (OWS) and radar signal processor computers, installs larger OWS displays, and migrates the OWS operating system to a LINUX-based, open-system architecture. Upgrades to the system’s on-board network infrastructure increase its bandwidth. Sources say that the initial $43 million contract will buy 7 conversion kits, with follow-ons for up to 9 more kits and for installation work. The entire set of actual awards would reportedly spend just $110 million of this contract.

Note that the JSTARS Total System Support Responsibility (TSSR) contract is due for renewal very soon. It’s instructive to compare the relative costs of the USAF’s sustainment contract vs. this upgrade contract, in order to fully understand the cost of this fleet.

Work will be performed at Melbourne FL, and is expected to be complete by Oct 20/20. USAF Material Command’s Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, MA will manage the contract (FA8730-14-D-0002). See also Northrop Grumman, Oct 30/13 release.

JSSIP III upgrades

Oct 21/13: At AUSA 2013, Northrop Grumman’s booth displays a small “Broadcast GMTI” kit, which would allow the E-8C to send its radar pictures directly to nearby ground forces. GMTI stands for “Ground Moving Target Indicator” software, which helps battlefield radars highlight and track moving targets. The aircraft is already being used as a communication relay, so bandwidth isn’t a problem.

Sept 23/13: Replace it. USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh tells AFA’s Air and Space Conference that the USAF prefers outright replacement of JSTARS. It’s Tier 2 behind the F-35, KC-46A, and new bomber, which means it probably isn’t affordable under actual budgets. Nevertheless, Walsh says the USAF is trying to build a plan for providing battlefield surveillance “at the best cost over time” using an analysis of alternatives.

There’s definitely a need. The 7th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron has flown the overall JSTARS fleet an average of 19.4 hours each day since 9/11. Other USAF officials say that the E-8 fleet’s depot track record, the need to replace their electronics, and their size and old engines makes them less competitive than alternatives.

Technologies have advanced considerably. Boeing’s 737-based P-8 AGS is one option, offering the USAF the most room for specialized equipment, and a platform with many key systems already finished via US Navy development funds. Elsewhere around the world, even smaller platforms are flying this mission. Israel operates a SEMA variant of the G550 large business jet, Brazil offers the R-99B/ EMB 145 Multi-Intel based on its ERJ-145 regional jet, and Britain’s Sentinel R1 fleet uses a Bombardier Global Express long-range business jet airframe. Sources: USAF 116th ACW, “JSTARS Recapitalization” | AFA Air Force Magazine, “Replacing JSTARS”.

Feb 25/13: Global Hawk + E-8. A flight test involving the T-3 JSTARS test aircraft and an RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 40 drone streams data from the UAV’s superior radar to the E-8. Northrop Grumman program director Bryan Lima states that:

“Operators in the Joint STARS aircraft were able to use the Global Hawk as an adjunct sensor…. We were able to display and use the Global Hawk’s radar data on the Joint STARS platform to extend and improve the overall surveillance capabilities and utility of both platforms.”

Sources: Northrop Grumman, March 6/13 release.

Jan 17/13: MIDS JTRS. The Pentagon releases the FY 2012 Annual Report from its Office of the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E). MIDS JTRS is included, and there’s some good news: FY 2012 testing showed that many of the 2010 IOT&E test’s deficiencies have been fixed.

MIDS JTRS on the E-8C JSTARS was declared operationally effective and suitable, but with limitations. The system worked, with no terminal failures in 114.3 hours of testing. The problem is that terminal operators had display problems, which needs to be fixed.

Within the same volume as the MIDS-LVT, the software-defined MIDS JTRS will be able to handle Link 16 with NSA certified encryption, Link-16 Enhanced Throughput (ET) and Link-16 Frequency Remapping (FR). It will also have TACAN (a tactical air navigation aid providing range and bearing from a beacon), UHF or VHF, and the Wideband Networking Waveform as communication options, and additional capabilities are implemented on 3 additional programmable channels from 2 MHz – 2 GHz. The US Navy is continuing development of 2 major MIDS JTRS increments: CMN-4 (Link 16 four-channel Concurrent Multi-Netting with Concurrent Retention Receive) and TTNT (Tactical Targeting Networking Technology). These new capabilities may require significant hardware and software design changes to the MIDS JTRS core terminal, as well as modifications to host platforms for TTNT. That adds considerable technical risk, and will require extensive testing.

April 4/12: MIDS-JTRS. The MIDS JTRS terminal is approved for Full Production and Fielding by Mr. Frank Kendall, Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

Despite earlier problems with ViaSat terminal, both MIDS-JTRS vendors have now been found Operationally Effective and Operationally Suitable by Commander, Operational Test & Evaluation Force (COTF) and Director, Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E), and will soon attain Initial Operational capability (IOC) on 3 different platforms: the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter family, the E-8C JSTARS battlefield surveillance & communication aircraft, and the RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic eavesdropping plane. JPEO JTRS [PDF]

March 14/11: Sensors. Northrop Grumman announces that they’ve completed Congress-mandated installation and testing of an MS-177 multispectral camera that adds visual imagery on top of the E-8C’s AN/APY-7 synthetic aperture radar pictures. Adding camera capability means permission to launch attacks in minutes, instead of hours, with no need to confirm using other platforms like UAVs.

The 500 pound Goodrich MS-177 sensor, derived from the U-2 spy plane’s Syers-2 camera, can keep focus on a target that’s head-on at the start of the plane’s pass and moves to the side as the plane flies, instead of being limited to side shots. It’s housed in a new keel beam accessory bay (KAB) behind the APY-7 radar, on JSTARS test aircraft T-3.

Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems director of Joint STARS’ architectures and concept demonstrations, Mike Mos, touts the key benefit as identification: “From long distances, the APY-7 radar combined with the MS-177 camera could identify very clearly people, buildings, automobiles and ships.” The APY-7 radar has been tweaked so it can spot moving individuals, a well as tanks, but attacks can’t be launched based on radar images alone. Some other form of positive identification is required, typically photos or video images. Cameras provide sharper images than the APY-7, and even the new MP-RTIP radar can’t tell you, for example, the registration number painted on a ship’s side. Or see a face.

The test has wider implications. The KAB could contain other sensors, creating other opportunities to expand the E-8’s payloads. Next steps for the team include more aerodynamic modeling and testing with the new fairing, and research into other sensor combinations. The team hopes this will pave the way for low percentage cost, high impact upgrades to the entire 17-plane fleet. See also Defense News re: initial September 2010 installation.

FY 2005 – 2010

$500+ million upgrade contract; E-8C Block 20 conversions finished; MP-RTIP radar progresses, slowly; Boeing submits a counter-proposal to the USAF.

E-8 Joint STARS

(click to view full)

Sept 24/10: MP-RTIP. Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems Western Region in El Segundo, CA receives a $12.3 million contract modification which will fund MP-RTIP radar system development and demonstration for integration with the RQ-4 Global Hawk Block 40 program. At this time, the entire amount has been committed by the Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, MA (F19628-00-C-0100; PO0220).

Sept 13/10: P-8 AGS. The battle over the E-8 JSTARS fleet’s future is heating up. Boeing is proposing a derivative of its P-8A Poseidon sea control aircraft as a proposed $5.5 billion, 1-for-1 replacement of the current E-8C fleet, instead of paying that estimated amount to upgrade the E-8Cs with new cockpits, sensors, and engines. The Boeing AGS version would include the Raytheon-Boeing Littoral Surveillance Radar System (LSRS), Raytheon’s AN/APY-10 multi-mode radar in the nose, some the same Electronic Support Measures for emissions geo-location that are featured on the E/A-18G Growler electronic attack plane, and an electro-optical surveillance and targeting turret. A P-8 derivative would also give the USAF space and integration for weapons on board, or additional sensors in those spaces.

Northrop Grumman believes the Boeing figure may be a lowball price, and has its own proposal to add 1′ x 8′ array radars on the plane’s cheeks, derived from the firm’s APG-77 and APG-81 AESA radars that equip F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. Today, JSTARS operations have to “break track” with a target to collect an image. The cheek fairings would solve that problem, while keeping the existing AN/APY-7, in order to lower the upgrade price to around $2.7 billion: $900M re-engining, $500M for new APY-7 receiver and exciters, $1 billion for the cheek array, $300M for avionics upgrade and battle management improvements. This would replace the previous push to swap the APY-7 for their new MP-RTIP radar.

Northrop Grumman executives have expressed concern that USAF officials haven’t showed them the 2009 initial capabilities document, which could launch a competition to replace or upgrade the E-8C. That isn’t a required step, but it is common practice. This may be because the USAF is considering even wider options – like putting the focus on “persistent ground looking radar and optical surveillance with high resolution moving target capability,” instead of an E-8C vs. 737 AGS competition. If so, the firms could find themselves competing with other platforms, possibly including derivatives of airship projects like Northrop Grumman’s US Army’s LEMV etc. Aviation Week | Flight International.

Boeing’s alternative

July 13/10: Sub-contractors. Tactical Communications Group, LLC announces a contract from Northrop Grumman’s E-8 JSTARS team for multiple TCG BOSS systems, in order to conduct comprehensive testing for Link 16 standards compliance by the new mission system and MIDS-JTRS terminals.

March 24/10: Sub-contractors. Curtiss-Wright Corporation announces a $10.5 million contract from Northrop Grumman Corporation to provide an upgraded Radar Signal Processing (RSP) solution for use in the JSTARS program. The initial portion of the contract, for $5.1 million, was awarded to cover “Prime Mission Equipment (PME) Diminishing Material Source (DMS),” ensuring that the USAF will have enough on hand in future. An additional $5.4 million was awarded to enhance the RSP solution “so that it meets advanced radar processing capacity requirements necessary to support future radar performance needs.”

The contract is part of a larger upgrade to the RASP (Radar Airborne Signal Processor (RASP) system used in Joint STARS. Curtiss-Wright’s Motion Control segment will design and manufacture the Radar Signal Processing (RSP) solutions at its San Diego, CA facility.

March 13/09: Accident. A contractor leaves a plug an E-8 fuel tank relief valve – and it nearly costs the USAF a JSTARS plane and all aboard when the wing fuel tank blows out during an aerial refueling near Qatar:

“The PDM [Programmed Depot Maintenance] subcontractor failed to follow Technical Order (TO) mandated procedures when employing the fuel vent test plug during PDM. Due to the relatively short period of time between take-off and [aerial refueling], the [aircraft] did not have the opportunity to burn a substantial amount of fuel from the number two fuel tank which could have allowed the “dive flapper” valve to open after the tank’s excessive air pressure decreased to the point where the flapper valve would open. This explains why this mishap did not occur… between the time [the plane] left the PDM facility and the time of the mishap [on March 13/09].”

The damage is “only” $25 million, and the JSTARS may end up being retired from the fleet. Sources; USAF Accident Report [PDF] | Defense Tech, “A Basic Mistake That Trashed a JSTARS” (incl. pictures).

Major but non-fatal accident

Aug 7/09: MP-RTIP. Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems Western Region in El Segundo, CA received a $57.1 million modified contract to provide a demonstration unit of the initial parts of the MP-RTIP for the Joint Stars E-8 platform. At this time, $27.2 million has been committed by the Multi-Sensor Command and Control Aircraft Program Office at Hanscom Air Force Base, MA (F19628-00-C-0100 P00174).

Nov 4/08: MP-RTIP. Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. of El Segundo, CA receives a $5.8 million cost reimbursement with award fee contract modification under the Joint STARS Radar Modernization program. They will perform a risk reduction study to examine the full extent of the effort required to integrate the (now-canceled) E-10’s planned MP-RTIP radar onto the E-8 JSTARS platform. All funds have already been committed by Hanscom AFB, MA (F19629-00-C-0100, Modification P00153).

Work on the study will be done at Northrop Grumman facilities in Norwalk, CT; Melbourne, FL; and El Segundo, CAl and Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems business unit. See also Northrop Grumman release.

April 8/09: In “Air Force Radar Plan Imperils Troops,” the center-libertarian Lexington Institute asks:

“What’s wrong with this picture? The Air Force plans to spend over a hundred billion dollars to buy 2,000 new fighters, but it can’t find the money to upgrade a handful of radar planes with better technology for tracking insurgents. Even though it has already spent a billion dollars to develop the new technology it now says it can’t afford to install. And even though warfighters in Iraq have identified an urgent operational need for the new capability.”

Nov 21/05: Upgrades. Northrop Grumman Corp. in Melbourne, FL receives a maximum $532 million cost-reimbursement fixed-price contract to procure improvements which will increase the E-8C fleet’s performance, reliability, and maintainability. The USAF can issue task orders totaling up to the maximum amount, but may issue less.

This contract will include a wide range of efforts, from studies to systems engineering and simulations, engineering change proposals, manufacturing, installation, test and demonstrations, production and retrofit, documentation, support, and training. The USAF is currently most interested in improvements to communications, navigation, surveillance, air traffic management, mobile target tracking, advanced radar systems, and airborne networking and communications improvements.

Work will be complete in December 2011. Solicitations began in August 2005, with 1 proposal received by the Headquarters Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom AFB, MA (FA8708-06-D-0001).

Contract for studies & upgrades

Aug 16/05: Northrop Grumman completes E-8C Block 20 upgrades to JSTARS planes delivered before 2002. Block 20 upgrades use integrated commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) computing and signal-processing hardware from Mercury Computer Systems and Compaq Computer Corporation. The full change creates more of an “open-systems” configuration for hardware and software, rather than relying on proprietary military electronics. Sources: Northrop Grumman, “Northrop Grumman Completes Joint STARS Computer Upgrade”.

Block 20 complete

Appendix A: Death of the E-10

E-10 MC2A concept

E-10 M2CA Concept
(click to view full)

The E-10A aircraft concept sought to combine the functions of 707-based E-3 AWACS aerial surveillance and command aircraft, and E-8 J-STARS ground surveillance planes, all packaged in a single 767-400 jet. Advances in modern electronics made the project thinkable, but budgetary constraints killed it in early 2007, leaving the USA’s existing E-3 and E-8 fleets to soldier on.

The E-10A had 2 key technologies that continue to draw interest.

One was an updated Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) mission suite that would be used as the aircraft’s nerve center. The bad news is that adding BMC2 to existing aircraft would involve substantial rewiring and other “deep maintenance” work.

The other was the MP-RTIP (Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program) wide-scan AESA radar, which will deploy a smaller-size version on NATO’s AGS (RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 40) fleet. Northrop Grumman has been pressing for an E-8C radar upgrade that would leverage their billion dollars worth of work on MP-RTIP, and improve E-8 scan resolution by a factor of 5x-10x.

Since December 2000, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman have been teamed for the design, development and production of MP-RTIP, and development of MP-RTIP continues under a $1.2 billion program. Its X-band Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar uses beam steering that can couple electronic and mechanical options. Specifics will depend on the platform and payload space, and antenna size can be tailored accordingly.

MP-RTIP’s Rocky Road

Block 40 rollout

RQ-4B Block 40 rollout
(click to view full)

As of the end of May 2009, MP-RTIP was behind its original schedule, and had not tested its most advanced variants. While the basic synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and ground moving target indications (GMTI) have finished testing, technical glitches took their toll. Due to issues with radar calibration, about 376 hours and 64 flights with Scaled Composites’ Proteus vehicle had been needed to iron out radar system level performance verification (RSLPV) on these basic modes, out of a total of 1,063 hours and 186 flights as of May 2009.

The MP-RTIP is reportedly having problems with “concurrent modes” when the radar is asked to do several things at once, which has cause high-level Pentagon officials to air their dissatisfaction in public.

Remaining modes in 2009 included ground high-range resolution (HRR) and concurrent moving-target indicator (MTI) modes. The HRR/c-MTI combination leverages the advantages of AESA technology and improved processing, in order to field a substantially improved SAR/GMTI ground radar scan. Ground HRR allows more precise measurement of a target’s length, while concurrent MTI does not force the radar to suspend collection in other modes while MTI is running. Some sources add that MP-RTIP will also have aerial MTI capability, which would give it the ability to find other UAVs and cruise missiles.

Additional Readings

Background: E-8 JSTARS

* USAF Fact Sheets – E-8C Joint Stars

* Northrop Grumman – E-8C Joint Stars. Northrop Grumman is the E-8C’s lead integrator; the base plane is Boeing’s.

* DID (Nov 23/05) – USA Spending $532M to Upgrade its E-8 J-STARS Eyes in the Sky.

Other E-8 related

* DID – Re-engining the E-8 JSTARS.

* DID (Dec 18/11) – 17 E-8C Planes x 30 Months = $540M Support Costs.

* DID – AGS: NATO’s Battlefield Eye in the Sky [Alliance Ground Surveillance]. RQ-4B Block 40 Global Hawk UAVs with MP-RTIP radars, which may become complements to the JSTARS fleet. The status of the USA’s Block 40 fleet is less certain.

* Northrop Grumman – AN/ZPY-2 Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP). Was once seen as the core of any JSTARS upgrades.

* GlobalSecurity.org – Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program.

* Wikipedia – Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program.

News & Views

* Lexington Institute (July 29/09) – Air Force Delay on Radar Plane Fix Hurts Soldiers.

* Aviation Week (May 29/09) – MP-RTIP Work Continues With Two Modes Tested [dead link].

Lexington Institute (April 8/09) – Air Force Radar Plan Imperils Troops.

* AIAA’s Aerospace America, via WayBack (September 2002) – SARs Will Remain Budget Stars.

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