WASHINGTON — Although the US Air Force's latest effort to replace its aging Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft is still in its infancy, three full-fledged industry teams are already vying for first place.
Northrop Grumman, which builds the existing E-8 JSTARS, is teamed with Gulfstream and its G550 business jet, with L-3 helping with integration. Lockheed Martin is working with Bombardier on a proposal based on the Canadian company's Global 6,000 business jet. Meanwhile, Boeing is offering a modified version of its 737-700 commercial airliner.
But one major defense contractor is staying above the fray. Raytheon has a ready-to-go wide-area radar — arguably the most crucial ingredient to the JSTARS platform — that can fulfill the mission. But Raytheon has decided to remain non-exclusive, providing its technologies to all three competing primes.
The current JSTARS, a militarized Boeing 707-300 airframe produced by Northrop Grumman, provides theater ground and air commanders with ground surveillance to support attack operations. Its most prominent feature is a long, canoe-shaped space under the forward fuselage that houses a 24-foot, side-looking phased array antenna.
Raytheon's offering for the next generation of JSTARS is a sensor called Skynet, Jim Hvizd, the company's vice president of business development, said in an interview. Skynet uses advanced processing power to generate high-resolution imagery and is able to precisely identify moving and stationary targets on the ground. It derives a great deal of technology from the Advanced Airborne Sensor, which the Navy has said it is currently flight testing on its P-8 maritime patrol aircraft.
Skynet can be scaled to fit on any airplane from a full-sized airliner to a smaller business jet and leverages a platform that has been developed for the US military, Hvizd said. Raytheon could begin producing Skynet within three years, he said, far faster than the Air Force's current JSTARS timetable.
By choosing to remain non-exclusive, Raytheon has the opportunity to participate in the program regardless of which team the Air Force picks to build the new JSTARS fleet.
The company chose not to tie itself to one of the competing primes to best support the Air Force's needs, Hvizd said.
"We want to make that sensor capability available to the Air Force really independent of how they may decide a platform decision," Hvizd said. "It really doesn't matter to us whether the platform is a larger commercial-based derivative or a business jet derivative, and that's why we're supporting all of the competitors with our radar offering."
In a major indication of how crucial the radar is to the JSTARS program, the Air Force on Aug. 21 released a request for proposals soliciting information from radar providers. This opens the possibility that the Air Force could choose a radar provider for JSTARS independent of the three industry teams, allowing the sensor manufacturer to support the Air Force directly.
"The [request for information] that the Air Force is moving out with is probably the strongest indication of their interest of wanting to make sure they have access to the key technologies that are going to be part of the eventual JSTARS solution," Hvizd said.
The Air Force officially kicked off the competition in early August, awarding the trio of competitors each a pre-engineering and manufacturing development contract, for a total of $31.4 million. Industry expects a Milestone A decision, which would authorize additional contract money for system and platform demonstrations, at the end of September, with a downselect for the EMD award in the summer or early fall of 2017.
The Air Force has 16 JSTARS in inventory, and the one-for-one recapitalization program is valued at $6.5 billion overall. The service plans is to achieve JSTARS initial operational capability in 2023, with full operational capability slated for 2027.
Northrop is pushing the Air Force to accelerate the program, an option that could potentially squeeze the Lockheed and Boeing teams out of the competition. Northrop said its JSTARS planes could be fully operational in 2023, four years ahead of the Air Force's current plan.
"Quite frankly, I will tell you our team can go a lot faster than the Air Force is currently scheduled," Alan Metzger, vice president at Northrop Grumman Corp., told reporters during a media trip to the Gulfstream manufacturing facility in Savannah, Georgia, Sept. 2. Northrop flew a small group of reporters down in Gulfstream jets for the briefing. "We think we could get you an IOC done in 2021, and we think we could get you an FOC done in 2023."
Northrop's proposal for the JSTARS airframe is optimal for the mission due to its high-altitude capability and low operating costs, Troy Miller, Gulfstream's regional vice president of military and special mission sales, told reporters. The G550 is 96 feet long and has a maximum cruise altitude of 51,000 feet. It has an unrefueled range of 6,750 nautical miles, and can fly nonstop for more than 12 hours, meeting the Air Force's requirements for range and endurance, he said.
The G550 option also leverages Gulfstream's existing Air Force contracts to reduce overall life cycle costs, and requires no programmed depot maintenance, Miller said.
Northrop could choose to offer the G650ER, which offers a slightly longer range and additional cabin space. However, company representatives said the team will stick with the G550 unless the Air Force's requirements change drastically.
Northrop is evaluating whether to use the company-made radar or Raytheon's Skynet, for its sensor solution, company representatives said.
"We understand the mission better than anybody else because we've been doing it for three decades," Metzger said. "There's only one Joint STARS in the world today."
Meanwhile, Boeing's offering, a 737-700 Boeing business jet, is an affordable option for the Air Force because it leverages the company's existing line of commercial aircraft, according to Rod Meranda, director of business development for the company's next-generation JSTARS effort. The company produces about 40 aircraft per month, and will continue to crank out planes until well into the 2020s, Meranda said.
737-700 with Winglets Artwork K64847-05
Photo Credit: Boeing Graphics
In addition, Boeing already builds two militarized versions of the aircraft: the P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance jet for the Navy, and the C-40 Clipper for the Navy and Air Force.
The plane is slightly longer than the G550, at 110 feet, with an endurance of 14 hours. It has an operating altitude of 35,000 to 41,000 feet, and an unrefueled range of 7,000 miles.
One major advantage of Boeing's offering is it's the only one of the trio FAA certified for inflight refueling, Meranda emphasized.
The Boeing team also is still weighing its options when it comes to the radar, Meranda said.
"You want this airplane not to last five years, 10 years — you want it to last 30 years, and you want a company to stand behind this airplane over those 30 years and have low operating costs and be committed to service this airplane throughout," Meranda said. "Boeing is committed to the 737 family — the commercial line and the military line."
Finally, the Lockheed-Bombardier team will offer Bombardier's ultra-long-range Global 6000 business jet for the program, Eric Hofstatter, Lockheed's JSTARS Recap program manager, said in an Thursday email. Lockheed is offering Raytheon's Skynet radar as part of its solution, the company announced in a June 16 statement.
Lockheed-Bombardier JSTARS concept
Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin
The airframe has a range of 6,000 nautical miles and a 51,000-foot maximum operating altitude, Hofstatter said. Lockheed has no aircraft testbed right now, but has assembled a ground system integration lab for testing system components, he added.
The jet "hits the sweet spot in terms of size, cost and performance," according to Hofstatter.
"Lockheed Martin is partnered with Raytheon and Bombardier to provide the greatest capabilities from across industry," Hofstatter said. "We believe the Lockheed Martin-led team can provide the capability and the value the Air Force has stated as its objectives. We have decades of experience in providing integrated aircraft systems to the Department of Defense."