WASHINGTON — As Gulfstream waits to see whether its G550 will emerge victorious and become the U.S. Air Force's new JSTARS and Compass Call airframe, the company has begun to fight a larger battle to win over the service as it begins contemplating future special-mission aircraft requirements.
The first major obstacle: convincing the Air Force that its requirements can be met with a smaller business jet and not a larger airliner, the latter of which would force Gulfstream out of upcoming competitions.
"A lot of discussions are underway about pending programs, both here in the U.S. and around the world, and that's a fundamental question. Will the next generation of these platforms be based on a true business jet, or will it go on another airliner?" Troy Miller, Gulfstream's regional vice president of military sales and marketing, said during a July 13 briefing in Savannah, Georgia. The company invited reporters to Savannah to get a glimpse of the facilities where G550s are built and converted into special-mission aircraft.
Although Gulfstream officials never called out Boeing by name, it centered its entire presentation on why business jets — like the G550 that the company offered for JSTARS and Compass Call — would be a better fit than larger airliners like the Boeing 737-700.
"I don't know if I could comment on the particular direction that we perceive the Air Force is going. We certainly have these discussions with Air Force leadership routinely. They do, as they do with airliner companies, express great interest in the capabilities that our platforms offer," Miller said.
"Ultimately the decision has to be made using the processes that they use for acquisition about what is the right answer, what is the right proposal. We think, however, that there is a clear indication if you look at the global totality of the direction of the special-missions model, that there is a major trend toward the business jet."
Over the coming months, the Air Force is set to make critical decisions regarding two special-mission aircraft that could influence the shape of later competitions. A downselect on the JSTARS recapitalization program is set to take place early next year at the latest. For that competition, Northrop Grumman partnered with Gulfstream and L3 and will face off against Boeing — which is offering a militarized 737-700 — and a Lockheed Martin-Bombardier team that will put forward a variant of the Global 6000 business jet.
Gulfstream is also presumed to be the preferred pick for the new Compass Call airframe. That program is currently under protest by both Boeing and Bombardier, who contend that the Air Force’s acquisition strategy gives Gulfstream a competitive advantage.
Beyond that, Miller said the company sees an opening for its business jets in the electronic warfare, ISR, executive transport and airborne early-warning mission sets. That could position Gulfstream as a contender to replace the E-3 AWACS and RC-135 Rivet Joint family, two fleets currently made up of modified commercial airliners.
"There are lots and lots and lots of mission sets that many might have presumed would be appropriate on a larger airliner-sized aircraft that in fact can be very, very optimally addressed on a Gulfstream. Those are the ones we are really interested in," he said.
"Our experience with the Air Force is they have been very open and willing to discuss with us our capabilities and how our aircraft might address existing or future mission requirements," he said. "We are confident that there is not a predetermination about the two different categories. There may be presumption based upon the existing mission sets, but I think there is a significant portion of opportunity out there."
Interestingly, Gulfstream executives did not reference its competitors in the business jet industry, like Bombardier, during the Thursday briefings. Instead, they mounted a broader argument that the G550’s lower cost and ability to conduct the mission at higher altitudes, faster speeds and longer ranges gave it the advantage over commercial airliners.
A Gulfstream G550’s altitude ceiling tops out at 51,000 feet, about 10,000 more than the average airliner, said Miller, who acknowledged that the weight of the military-specific equipment would likely decrease altitude, speed and range for both types of planes.
For an aircraft like JSTARS — the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System tasked with surveying the air and ground domains and to form a picture of the battlefield — higher altitude allows for a better field of view. It also enables the aircraft to avoid bad weather or traffic, he said.
A faster speed, 0.85 Mach compared with the average airliner’s 0.82 Mach, would help the aircraft reach those high altitudes faster. And its longer range would allow it to make fewer stops for refueling and to stay on station collecting data for longer periods, Miller said.
Meanwhile, Boeing has already declared its intent to use the 737 as the basis for proposed special-mission aircraft sales opportunities going forward. Militarized Boeing airliners currently make up a large portion of the Air Force’s special-missions aircraft fleet, with JSTARS aircraft, AWACs and Rivet Joint aircraft all commercial derivatives of Boeing.
Boeing and its advocates have said the larger size of its 737-700 platform has a distinct benefit — extra space, power and cooling for additional equipment needs that may occur as the mission evolves.
But Gulfstream believes there is such a thing as being too big.
"What room for growth means is that they are offering way more aircraft than the mission requires," Miller said. As technology progresses, equipment gets smaller and requires less power and cooling than previous iterations. Less manpower is also needed, resulting in smaller crews, he added.
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, agreed that business jets do offer some intrinsic advantages over airliners, such as better access to airfields and better performance at high altitudes.
However, the big question is whether the Air Force needs to centralize its battle management and information processing systems, or whether they can be disaggregated across a number of different platforms, unmanned systems or sensors. If the service feels confident that it can do the latter while maintaining data security, it will gravitate toward business jets, Otherwise, airliners may continue to hold the advantage, he said.
"This is a big divergence in philosophy," he said. "And because of that divergence the way it's settled for one competition will likely have big consequences for the others. In other words, the special mission replacement market might be winner-take-all."
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.