The Air Force is changing tack on its maintenance plans for the E-8C battle management plane, looking for a new contractor to handle repairs while a three-year experiment to move that work in-house has produced mixed results.

In 2018, facing quality issues at the longtime Northrop Grumman maintenance depot in Louisiana, the Air Force began to explore whether maintenance airmen could offer a better, faster alternative for repairs on the 16 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System planes at Robins Air Force Base, Ga. They envisioned that Robins could split the workload with Northrop or potentially take over major sustainment entirely.

Three aircraft entered the Air Force’s trial depot at Robins for structural fixes, painting and other routine inspections. Two have since cycled out, while the third has stayed put with a complex wing problem.

This month, the service is launching an effort with Boeing to get that JSTARS back into the fight after nearly three years in the repair shop.

The Air Force told Air Force Magazine last year that the airframe, based on a Boeing 707, has thousands of wing fasteners and other components that needed specialized work.

“This particular aircraft has had a number of unforeseen aging aircraft issues, non-standard repairs,and parts obsolescence, resulting in extended depot flow at the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex,” an Air Force Materiel Command spokesperson told Air Force Times this month. “To further complicate the process, there have been longer-than-normal periods of time where the original equipment manufacturer and/or cognizant engineering authority were required to develop specific technical guidance for unprecedented types of repairs.”

A Boeing team that has experience handling complicated fixes on similar airframes will start tackling those issues in mid-April, the spokesperson said.

“Technicians at [Warner Robins] are preparing the aircraft for the Boeing team and will also conduct any follow-on maintenance and preparations required to return the aircraft to the owning unit once complete,” they added.

The Air Force declined to answer several questions on how the plane’s extended depot stay is affecting combat operations, how many aircraft in the fleet are currently undergoing maintenance, and whether that number is meeting the service’s expectations for Northrop and its airmen. Last year, the service said fewer than 60 percent of JSTARS planes were available to fly missions.

“Operational sensitivities are the driver limiting discussion of depot maintenance for the low-density/high-demand JSTARS fleet,” the Air Force said. “The JSTARS system continues to meet its worldwide obligations.”

JSTARS carries a giant surveillance radar that tracks enemy ground and sea forces and shows U.S. troops where to direct attacks. It first deployed in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm; the fleet is pivoting to missions outside the Middle East after ending an 18-year run in support of U.S. Central Command in 2019.

In addition to Boeing’s upcoming work, the Air Force is starting a competition for companies to bid on a long-term E-8C sustainment contract. Northrop has been the prime JSTARS maintainer for more than two decades, and was projected by the Government Accountability Office to earn $7 billion in upkeep contracts through 2022.

Last month, the Air Force posted a draft solicitation for companies interested in the contract. That work is slated to start in January 2023 and last up to 10 years, according to an industry day slideshow provided to Air Force Times.

They want to speed up the time it takes to turn around a JSTARS in the repair shop, noting that work should take less than a year to complete.

The USAF-run depot at Robins will handle JSTARS depot maintenance before a contractor takes over that responsibility, the service said.

“[Warner Robins] is a highly qualified repair facility with a fully proficient and accomplished workforce,” the AFMC spokesperson said. “The Air Force continues to evaluate options for future Joint STARS depot maintenance.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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