The Air Force's replacement for the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System could be operational by 2022. (Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The Air Force hopes to develop a new JSTARS surveillance aircraft based on a business jet, one which could be operational as soon as 2022.
The service hopes to “reduce the life cycle costs of the weapon system” by moving the mission onto a business jet platform, according to a request for information (RFI) posted on a federal contracting website Jan. 23. . That document states that the platform will use an open architecture in order to better integrate with different technologies expected to be in the field by the time the program finished.
The E-8 JSTARS, short for Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, is a modified Boeing 707-300 with long-range radars the Air Force says can locate, track and classify ground vehicles at a distance of up to 124 miles. There are 18 platforms in inventory.
“The proposed airborne system will include four main components: the airborne platform, a sensor subsystem, a BMC2 [battle management command and control] subsystem, and a communications subsystem,” according to the RFI. “The government plans to acquire the system using a multiple contracts strategy.”
In order to “minimize cost and schedule risk,” off-the-shelf equipment and modules are requested for the BMC2. Responses to the RFI are due Feb. 28, days after the service hopes to host an ISR industry day at the Pentagon.
Speaking in September, Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, surprised reporters by bringing up a JSTARS modernization project as a funding priority.
“The medium-altitude ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] fleet has to be recapitalized. Right now, there’s not a plan to do that. We think the first thing we need to do is recapitalize JSTARS,” Welsh said at an annual Air Force Association conference. “That intelligence has been phenomenally successful.”
More recently, the man in charge of the service’s ISR indicated a new JSTARS program remained a priority, and gave a hint as to what it may look like.
“I think we would say that it would be a different physical platform than the current airplane that’s doing it,” Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, deputy chief of staff for ISR, said in a Jan. 23 interview. “It would be modern sensors and modern communications and all of that might suggest that there’s a size, weight and power equation that meets that requirement. I am a big fan of competition, and we throw out our basic requirements and see what comes back from the private sector.”
“I would like to certainly begin that process,” Otto said. “You have to win the argument through the department in order to put money against it.”
And that remains the biggest hurdle to a new JSTARS platform — funding. Service officials have been clear that this budget is going to be a painful one, with whole platforms facing cuts and upgrades to legacy fleets unlikely to receive funding that can go toward priorities like F-35 joint strike fighters.
The funding opportunities for a JSTARS recapitalization are going to be slim for the next few years, which likely explains why the Air Force is choosing to focus only on the BMC2 subsystem in this RFI. The sensor and communications subsystems, as well as the aircraft itself, are not covered by the RFI. It also raises questions about whether the stated operational target of 2022 is realistic.
The service has said it intends to retire the JSTARS fleet by the early 2030s, but modernizing the aging technology has proven a challenge — a program to develop more efficient engines for the platforms was killed in 2012, and the planes still fly with old processing systems.