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With No Replacement in Sight, Joint STARS Feel Strain

Oct. 9, 2012 - 12:18PM   |  
By BEN IANNOTTA   |   Comments
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Pushing the U.S. Air Force’s E-8C radar planes to fly until some of them are more than 60 years old will be even harder than it sounds. That’s the message the planes’ contractor wants Air Force leaders to hear, now that the service has declared it can’t afford to replace the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft.

Executives from prime contractor Northrop Grumman describe a JSTARS fleet that’s hampered by old Pratt & Whitney engines, cumbersome 56 kilobits-per-second datalinks, and no clear plan to keep them flying or replace them with something else. The plane’s Air Force operators are concerned also about the fleet’s avionics.

If the Air Force has an adequate sustainment plan, Northrop hasn’t seen it.

“These things aren’t in the current budget right now, even in ‘13 or what we’re hearing about ‘14,” said Steve Bond, Northrop’s director of business development for JSTARS.

And yet a March internal requirements “roadmap” for JSTARS has the planes potentially flying through 2030. The service has said that with the budget it’s been given, it just can’t afford its preferred option of replacing JSTARS with a mix of new business jets and radar-equipped Global Hawks, as recommended after a two-year-long analysis of alternatives.

JSTARS planes won’t fall out of the sky if they have to keep flying, Northrop says, but their gas-guzzling engines will need more frequent maintenance and their comms systems could well fall out of sync with a military intelligence apparatus that continues to modernize. Avionics face a similar problem.

And what does the Air Force make of that argument?

Col. Henry Cyr was a bit less alarmist in a telephone interview from Robins Air Force Base, Ga., home to the JSTARS fleet. Cyr is vice commander of the 461st Air Control Wing, which flies and equips the planes together with the 116th Air Control Wing.

Given the budget situation, he said, “What you’re seeing with JSTARS is improvements to the things we have now.”

Work is underway, for example, toward replacing each plane’s big central computer — each has a 1990s-era Compaq — with new Hewlett-Packards. So far, a new computer has been installed on a test plane and work on the rest of the planes is scheduled to start next year.

Overall, though, Cyr painted a picture of an increasingly out-of-date fleet whose average fuselage is 44 years old.

When pressed about what to do about that, Cyr said the planes are viable in the near and medium terms, and he emphasized that policy questions are not his role. But judging by his comments, the service’s internal conversations about the future of JSTARS did not end in March, when then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told lawmakers the service couldn’t afford the new business jets.

To Cyr, the Air Force remains “in a decision kind of inflection point right now between, you know, do you put a lot of money into JSTARS? Not just sustaining but advancing it. Or do you move on to something else?”

Certainly, he said, some basic sustainment work will be required to keep flying the planes. The No. 1 priority, he said, will be upgrading the fleet’s avionics equipment.

If that’s not done, the planes “will have increasing difficulty flying in international airspace, potentially impacting our ability to get to the fight. The mission systems have been sustained and modernized to a far greater degree than the avionics systems over the years.”

One thing that is not in doubt, Cyr said, is the appetite for the moving target indicator “dots” JSTARS collects with its radar. Cyr ran through a litany of recent missions supported by JSTARS, from the destruction of 1,424 targets in Libya last year to keeping watch while U.S. forces convoyed out of Iraq. The planes are starting to scan the oceans for boats in coordination with the Coast Guard.

So far, Congress has not stepped in to solve the conundrum of an aging fleet that’s producing high-demand intelligence with no replacement in sight. The closest to intervention came from the House Appropriations Committee. In a report accompanying the 2013 defense appropriations bill, lawmakers criticized the Air Force for taking so long to complete the analysis of alternatives and for leaving “uncertainty” in the budget outlook for such a “vital mission.” They recommended adding $10 million to the Air Force budget to cover any new programs the service might need to start in 2013 because of the analysis. Senate appropriators, meanwhile, voted to fund the Air Force’s full $24 million request.

While some are fixating on the airframe question, Cyr also wants to make sure the military is making maximum use of JSTARS dots. These are the locations of trucks, cars or boats betrayed by the shift in radar frequency when a JSTARS plane transmits a signal across hundreds of square miles and the signal bounces off moving objects.

Before Iraq and Afghanistan, the dots were mostly thought of as command-and-control tools for displaying the locations of enemy tanks and ground vehicles relative to friendly forces. Commanders would then decide how to confront or move around the enemy forces. But in counterinsurgencies, the dots were turned into intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tools. They helped map the pattern of daily life by identifying commonly used roads. Video camera-equipped planes would then be cued in for closer examinations if, for instance, a vehicle popped up in an unusual place. The dots were sent directly to commanders, but now a non-line-of-sight satellite communications link has been added to JSTARS, which means the dots are also fed directly into the Secret Internet Protocol Router Network, or SIPRNET. From there, they can be accessed by intelligence analysts.

Cyr is not satisfied with today’s tools for fusing those dots onto digital maps together with signals intelligence and full motion video. “It’s not seamless where you would think you might have a screen with MTI trailing across it, and then you can superimpose an FMV picture or a SIGINT hit,” he said.

“What we’re going to have to work on as an MTI enterprise — not just the Air Force, [but] the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, combatant command staffs, other services — is really kind of maturing this MTI enterprise.” Compared with full motion video, for example, “What isn’t as well established is the full [processing, exploitation, dissemination] structure for MTI,” he said.

Moving target indicator advocates try not to look backwards at how they ended up with four-decade-old fuselages, limited resources for modernization and no plans to replace the aircraft. Sometimes they can’t help it. For two years, the Air Force conducted its “Airborne Synthetic Aperture Radar/Moving Target Indicator (SAR/MTI), JSTARS Mission Area Analysis of Alternatives.”

To hear Northrop tell it, everyone was left treading water over that span. The analysis “created a lot of uncertainty, from an Air Force perspective, in terms of where to invest and not invest,” said Dave Nagy, Northrop’s vice president of business development for military aircraft systems.

Northrop had lobbied hard for installation of new engines on the planes, winning funds for two batches of four engines — enough for two planes. Once the analysis kicked off in March 2010 there was now a legitimate reason to do nothing more. Why re-engine the planes if an entire new fleet of aircraft might be built or the service might decide to switch to radar-equipped, unmanned Global Hawks? The analysis proceeded methodically, with the Air Force carefully gathering data about capabilities and new technologies. The trade-offs were complicated. The service had to figure out whether to stay with JSTARS, buy more radar-equipped Global Hawks, build all new versions on business jets or maybe even procure Air Force versions of the P-8 maritime patrol planes in development by Boeing for the Navy.

Beyond Langley Air Force Base, Va., where the experts were hard at work, a public debate was exploding over how to address the U.S. budget deficit. The Air Force, like the other services, was ordered to scale back any visions of growth.

The Air Force did not rush the analysis of alternatives. It ordered the study in December 2009, started work three months later and delivered the report to the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office only in January 2012. The Pentagon took months more to review the analysis, sharing it with Congress only in June. The service has summarized the basic findings but has not released the report publicly or to the defense industry.

By the time the experts reached their recommendation, there was no money for it.

So the Air Force has the JSTARS planes as they exist now, plus the computer upgrades described by Cyr.

The service still has no plans to install new engines across what is about to be a 16-plane fleet, now that the service has decided to retire one damaged aircraft. One set of engines has been flown on the JSTARS test plane. The other is in storage.

“Certainly, we would benefit from them, but I don’t see that anytime soon — in the current fiscal environment — as something that’s going to happen with the platform,” Cyr said.

Northrop sees a cost driver in the old Pratt & Whitney JT3D engines, which are described on Pratt’s website as its “first production turbofan” engines.

“The bottom line is if you don’t re-engine, you’re going to pay more in terms of operating costs for fuel, you’re going to continue to pay more — continue to pay more for sustainment costs, in terms of program depot maintenance,” Nagy said.

The Boeing 707 fuselages are old, but Northrop isn’t as concerned about them because they were remanufactured when they were converted into JSTARS planes in the 1990s.

Northrop cites two examples where it says the military is changing but JSTARS is not.

The planes send their collections to the ground via Surveillance and Control Data Links known as SCDLs, pronounced “skittles.” The links are slow, pumping data down at 56 kbps, the same rate as old dial-up modems.

“It’s old and it needs to be replaced with a new data link,” said Northrop’s Bond.

Cyr said there is no plan to do that because of the cost. But he said JSTARS can still perform its mission because most units can access the dots via SIPRNET, which receives them through the new satellite links.

Then there is the issue of displaying friendly force vehicle positions aboard JSTARS. The Army is shifting to an improved system, called Force 21 Battle Command Brigade and Below/Blue Force Tracking 2, which will report force positions via satellite.

The Army is “upgrading the protocols and the specifics associated with how that system works, and Joint STARS is going to need a refresh to do that as well. And that obviously is something that needs to be considered, too,” Nagy said.

Cyr said this capability is being rolled out in three phases, and that for JSTARS the first phase is on contract.

Northrop says these are just two examples of the work that should be done. The company hasn’t given up hope that the Air Force will reach the same conclusion.

“Those kinds of things are not Joint STARS issues, they are architectural issues where everyone else is moving to a different standard and Joint STARS needs to keep up with it, and we’re hopeful the Air Force will invest in those kinds of modernization issues to make sure that it does,” Nagy said.

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