ST. LOUIS — The Air Force hasn't yet announced its modernization plans for a slew of aging commercial derivative aircraft, but Boeing plans to use its 737 airliner as the basis for replacements to the E-3 AWACS, EC-130H Compass Call and all variations of the RC-135, a company official said Monday.
The company is banking on a militarized version of the 737-700 to win the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System recapitalization program that will succeed the Air Force's current ground surveillance aircraft. But Boeing also sees a bright future for the 737 in other upcoming competitions because of its sustainability, and its larger size lends itself well to future size, weight and power requirements, argued Fred Smith, its director of global sales and marketing for the defense sector's commercial derivative airplanes, which also includes the KC-46 tanker and P-8 maritime aircraft.
"We have looked at every single one of these recaps and we firmly believe that the 737 is the right platform," he said during a briefing at Boeing's facilities in St. Louis. Defense News accepted travel and hotel accommodations from the company.
The Air Force is still in the process of deciding exactly how it will replace its current Airborne Warning and Control System, called AWACS, as well as the RC-135 family of systems, which includes the Rivet Joint aircraft that conducts signals intelligence. However, in its Air Superiority 2030 flight plan, the service stated that it may not necessarily move forward with a traditional aircraft competition for AWACS because of concerns that it may not be survivable enough to withstand operating in a denied environment.
"Maybe it's something that's more survivable that's an airborne platform that moves forward, or maybe there's not a platform anymore," Brig. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, who led the Air Superiority 2030 effort, said in a recent interview with Defense News. "Maybe it's just data-linked back to some ground location, or maybe it's data-linked to something like an AWACs that's just further away, but the sensors wouldn't be on that. Then it would just kind of be a gateway or a comms node with your battle managers there, so your battle management function could really be done anywhere."
The service will decide its path forward after a 2018 analysis of alternatives on advanced battle management systems and likely begin a program of record in the early 2020s. A competition for the Rivet Joint follow-on system could begin three to five years following that, the service has said.
Smith said Boeing is aware of the service’s concerns and is studying a range of operations concepts, but the company believes a manned aircraft will continue to be a requirement in any future AWACS or Rivet Joint follow-on competition.
"We're participating in studies with other members of industry. We’re looking at what the future might bring in terms of manned-unmanned teaming, in terms of offboarding or onboarding assured communications," he said of a future AWACS recap, adding that the company is particularly looking at anti-access, area denied environments and situations where an adversary is employing cyber attacks to disrupt US communications or sensors.
"We're not just blindly saying that the 737 is the right aircraft," he added. "But from what we know about requirements today and what we know about when these aircraft need to be recapped, we believe there will be a manned component to that, that will require assured communications and forward battle management, command and control to ensure that we have direct connectivity to warfighters on the ground and in the air."
Boeing will offer its 767 for recapitalization of larger commercial-derivative airplanes, such as future National Command Authority airplanes that will require aircraft with longer endurance and more capacity, Smith said. However, the mission system and crew requirements of RC-135, Compass Call and AWACs replacements can likely be met with the smaller 737.
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.