WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Strategic Command has asked the Navy to lay the groundwork for a future airborne command and control aircraft, one that could include a joint development with the Air Force.
Gen. John Hyten, who took over STRATCOM in November, told members of Congress on Wednesday that the Navy has begun planning its eventual replacement for the E-6B fleet, which provides airborne command, control and communications between the National Command Authority and U.S. strategic and non-strategic forces, even though those planes are expected to fly out to 2038.
Though Hyten said planning is still in the very early analysis stage, he told reporters after his hearing that the reality of defense acquisitions means work must begin now.
"We’re only 20 years from 2038, so if you’re going to build large aircraft with huge command and control [requirements], you have to start thinking about those things right now," Hyten said. "That’s what the Navy is starting to do, I’ve requested they start looking at defining what comes next."
Both Hyten and Adm. Bill Moran, vice chief of naval operations, said there may be a benefit to teaming with the Air Force and developing a single platform to handle various command and control missions, with Moran telling Congress: "We’re looking at a way to get at a joint program, or at least a common airframe, to satisfy both missions."
The Navy’s fleet of 16 E-6B aircraft are based on a Boeing 707 commercial body, the same body used by the Air Force for the vast majority of its command and control assets, including the E8-C Joint Surveillance Targeting Attack Radar System, the E-3 Sentry airborne warning and control system, the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft, and the OC-135B Open Skies aircraft.
The Air Force has warned that those platforms simply have too much wear and tear on the airframes and that upkeep has become prohibitively expensive due to parts no longer being manufactured for the 707. According to a 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service, the E-6B aircraft have an average age of 21 years.
Moran told Congress that although the Navy can get the E-6B fleets out to 2038, that is pushing the limits of the airframes.
"The 707s are really old airplanes, and they’re going to be really, really old when we get to the end of their service life based on the service life extension we’re looking at," he noted to reporters, before adding that it only makes sense to look at whether the Navy and Air Force can develop something together to shave down costs.
However, that doesn’t mean there will be just one platform for all the surveillance missions. As Moran pointed out, the plane itself is just a "truck" that carries around the important equipment inside. At the same time, Moran acknowledged there might be benefits that can be shared from the recapitalization efforts currently underway for JSTARS.
"We’re always looking for places where we cannot be duplicative ... [that] allows us to do it at the lowest possible cost because they’ve already developed, or we’ve already developed" technologies, he said. "Part of that is our responsibility to make sure we’re doing this at the best cost of the American taxpayer, and part of that involves sharing technology and sharing ideas."
The aging E-6B fleet is just part of an aging nuclear command and control infrastructure that Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called "robust, resilient — and ancient."
Selva later said that while the command and control structure works for today, he was concerned about 10 years from now, and called it "my No. 1 priority" among the overall nuclear modernization push now underway at the Pentagon.
A recent report from the Congressional Budget Office put the cost of refurbishing the nuclear command and control infrastructure at $58 billion over the next decade.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.