Lt. Col. Joseph Paguiligan and other crew members work aboard a Joint STARS aircraft during a mission to escort the last U.S. ground convoy out of Iraq in December. (U.S. Air Force)
Now that the U.S. Air Force has said it is probably going to have no choice but to continue flying its two-decade-old fleet of Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft, Northrop Grumman is airing what it describes as a cost-saving idea.
Northrop said it could adjust the software on the planes to permit them to conduct some missions with fewer than today’s 18 crew members. This “mission specific crewing” capability could be incorporated under an Air Force project, now in its early phases, to replace the radar processing computers and workstations on the 17-plane fleet. That initiative, called the Prime Mission Equipment Diminishing Manufacturing Sources program, will be necessary to ensure that spare parts are available for the planes’ computers, the Air Force has said. Northrop is prime contractor for that effort.
“Through the combination of the upgraded computing hardware already on contract and some software improvements, Joint STARS could be operated by less operators depending on the specific requirements of the mission, thus saving operations costs,” the company said.
Northrop, however, is anxious to see if funding for the computer upgrade program is included in the service’s 2014 budget request to Congress. The program is in its flight-test phase.
Under the flexible-crew proposal, a full complement would still be needed for a complex mission in which a Joint STARS crew is tracking ground forces, identifying targets and exercising command and control.
“For something that’s more, what I call, surveillance-intensive, you could have a smaller crew,” said Dave Nagy, vice president for business development at the company’s Battle Management and Engagement Systems Division.
Northrop said it briefed the concept to Air Force officials involved with a months-long analysis of alternatives (AOA), which weighed whether to continue flying the Joint STARS planes, which are due for expensive engine upgrades in addition to the computer work.
The analysis determined that the best option would be to build an entirely new radar aircraft fleet using smaller, fuel-efficient corporate jet airframes as foundations. Also contributing would be radar versions of the unmanned Global Hawk, called the Block 40, also built by Northrop.
In a March hearing, Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told U.S. senators the Air Force’s preferred course would not fit into the budget the service was given.
“Notwithstanding the AOA, sir, the reality is that there is not enough space [in the budget] to undertake a new start, business-class ISR platform,” he said, according to a transcript.
Without funds for a new fleet, Schwartz said the Air Force would need to rely on Joint STARS and the Block 40 Global Hawks.
Northrop officials said the hearing was their first concrete glimpse into the Air Force’s position on the Joint STARS planes, which track people and vehicles in a radar mode called ground moving target indicator.
“I think that’s a very reasonable conclusion to make in this budget environment,” Nagy said of the proposal to fly Joint STARS together with the Block 40 Global Hawks.
Nagy said that if part of the attraction to the corporate jet is the smaller crew, then adding “mission specific crewing” to Joint STARS could have a similar cost-saving effect.