WASHINGTON — The Air Force hopes to release a final request for proposals for JSTARS replacement aircraft by the end of the year, but that is becoming increasingly unlikely as the service weighs whether to move forward with changes to its contract strategy that could push fielding further into the future, the service's top civilian said.

The service is currently deliberating whether it will rewrite its industry solicitation to include fixed-price language required by lawmakers in this year's defense policy bill, which passed both chambers in a veto-proof majority. A provision was included in the bill that would allow the defense secretary to waive that requirement in the interests of national security, and the service is seriously considering that option, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Defense News in an exclusive interview.

After the National Defense Authorization Act conference report was unveiled last week, James directed service acquisition executive Darlene Costello to reevaluate the contract and offer advice about whether a fixed-price contract was feasible and in the service's best interest. The service had initially intended to follow a "hybrid approach" for the engineering, manufacturing and development phase of the program, which would make most of the contract firm-fixed-price but keep some riskier elements under a cost-plus structure.

"There is also a waiver authority in that language, and so we are also in discussions with OSD about the possibilities there. So there is no final decisions on the way ahead yet," James said on Dec. 8. "We hope to get it out by the end of the year, [but] there's no guarantee."

The Air Force intends to purchase 17 aircraft to replace its current Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System fleet, and an EMD contract is expected to be awarded in fiscal year 2018. Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman all plan to submit proposals.

Although industry had expected a final RFP in September, the service decided to release another draft while it worked with the House and Senate armed service committees' staff, hoping to persuade lawmakers to eliminate the fixed-price requirement that had been included in the Senate committee's version of the bill. During the Air Force Association conference that month, service acquisition officials warned that mandating a firm, fixed-price contract would cause a chain reaction of schedule delays. A three- to six-month delay on issuing the RFP could bump initial operational capability by about a year, Costello said then. 

James did not dispute that point, saying that it was a "good bet" that a move to a fixed-price contract would push an RFP release to next year — in turn, delaying IOC.

"If we were to full stop that [hybrid strategy] and come back to firm-fixed price, I’m sure that would cause a delay because we would in essence be largely starting over. So a delay in the RFP would produce a delay in the IOC," she said.

Should Air Force leaders request a waiver, they may have a solid argument for why immediate action on the contract is necessary. The current JSTARS aircraft provide battle management command and control and ISR, two capabilities that continue to be in high demand by combatant commanders. However, the aircraft — based on the Boeing 707 airliner — are aging and becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.

Earlier this year, the service grounded four of its JSTARS aircraft over concerns about maintenance work performed at a Northrop Grumman depot. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, the head of Air Force Material Command, said then that the desire to move aircraft quickly from the depot back into the field may have contributed to quality control issues. The planes have since returned to service.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/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.

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