WASHINGTON — The Air Force will delay an expected contract award for the service's next-generation ground surveillance aircraft by as much as six months, at the same time giving itself more wiggle room to declare the new fleet operational in the 2020s.

Senior Air Force and Department of Defense acquisition leaders recently revised the acquisition strategy for the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) recapitalization program, according to Air Force spokesman Justin Oakes. The new plan allows more time in the early stages of JSTARS development to reduce overall program risk, Oakes added.

The service may also postpone the deadline for declaring initial operating capability (IOC) for the program. The Air Force had planned to declare IOC for the JSTARS recap in fiscal year 2023, but on Feb. 19 a spokesman projected IOC would take place "in the mid-2020s."

"We will continue to update our projections as the JSTARS program progresses," according to Air Force spokesman Maj. Rob Leese.

JSTARS is still on track to achieve "Milestone B," an acquisition step that approves entry into the engineering, manufacturing and development, or EMD, phase, in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2017, according to Oakes. However, the EMD contract award has slipped to the first quarter of FY18, he noted

The EMD award was delayed in order to allow the three industry teams currently on contract for JSTARS risk reduction to mature their system-level designs, Oakes noted. Senior leaders have decided to increase the scope of work within the technology maturation and risk reduction (TMRR) phase, which was initiated late last year after the Pentagon approved "Milestone A."

"The TMRR phase is intended to give industry more time to mature their system-level designs and allow the Department of Defense to better understand the mission area cost-capability trade space," Oakes said "Reducing risk and understanding requirements early in the program facilitates a more executable and affordable program, overall. The risk reduction work in FY15-17 is critical for program success and provides decision-quality engineering data to inform the program and potentially enable program acceleration in the future."

The Air Force officially kicked off the competition to replace the aging E-8 JSTARS in August 2015, awarding a trio of competitors each a pre-EMD contract, for a total of $31.4 million. Northrop, which builds the existing aircraft, 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 6000 business jet. Meanwhile, Boeing is offering a modified version of its 737-700 commercial airliner.

The legacy E-8 JSTARS, a militarized Boeing 707-300 airframe produced by Northrop, has long-range radars that provide ground and air commanders critical 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.

At the Air Force searches for a business jet solution to the next-generation JSTARS, the service and industry will continue to mature designs for a modern active electronically scanned array, or AESA, radar for the plane. The Air Force will award two radar risk reduction contracts to industry — likely Northrop Grumman and Raytheon — in October 2016, according to official budget documents.

Raytheon and Northrop are the only two original equipment manufacturers capable of meeting the Air Force's requirements for the new JSTARS radar, Defense News previously reported.

Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, stressed after a Feb 18 event hosted by the Mitchell Institute the urgent need for JSTARS across the globe. The ground surveillance fleet is set to retire starting in 2019.   

"It's a requirement capability that the warfighters, that the [combatant commanders] rate highly, that our sister services have stood up for and rated it as something that they need," Holmes said, adding that he believes the biggest risk to the program will be in the integration work. "We have a good approach to delivering a replacement capability at a much lower cost."

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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