WASHINGTON — The Air Force plans to request funding in its new budget to recapitalize the EC-130H Compass Call fleet by moving the electronics on the aging planes onto new business jet bodies, sources tell Defense News.

The EC-130H is a key component of the Air Force's electronic attack capability. The fleet went operational in 1983, and while there have been a number of upgrades to the electronic systems, the airframes themselves are becoming a concern.

Because of the wear on the plane, the Air Force attempted to retire seven of the 14 EC-130Hs in inventory in its fiscal year 2016 budget. However, Congress — led by Rep. Martha McSally, a former Air Force pilot whose district includes Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where the planes are based — included language blocking those retirements.

According to a pair of sources, the Air Force wants to shrink the size of the Compass Call aircraft from the C-130H body to a business jet solution. It is similar in concept to the decision to go for a business jet solution in the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) platform. The sources were not clear if the funding would begin in fiscal year 2017 or later in the FYDP.

In theory, improvements in technology would allow more automation of mission, which could shrink the number of people needed on board. The EC-130H design requires a crew of 13.

So what design is the service considering for the new Compass Call? It's not clear, but one source pointed to an Oct. 26 solicit on the FedBizOps contracting website for a "RFI for Commercial Derivative Aircraft Capability Alternatives."

The solicitation does not specify that it is tied to the EC-130H replacement, and it is possible the two are unrelated. But the details seem to fit the concept of a bizjet solution for the Compass Call fleet.

According to the posting, an industry day was held Nov. 16 and 17 at Langley Air Force Base. Nine contractors attended the main event: BAE Systems, Boeing, FMS Aerospace, Greenwich Aero Group, Gulfstream, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Telephonics, and Tempus Applied.

It also appears Bombardier had a private breakout session, as did Boeing, Gulfstream and Northrop Grumman. That may indicate those are potential prime contractors for such a program. All four companies are involved in the JSTARS competition as well.

The solicit requests industry be able to deliver an aircraft in FY18, with a rate of one per year following over the next nine years — 10 total aircraft for the program. Initial Operational Capability is eyed for FY2020.

In response to an industry query on why the production is so slow, the Air Force cited "NDAA language and budgetary constraints are driving the proposed strategy of synchronized drawdown of existing airframes while simultaneously acquiring a new platform. With no expected additional funding, a 'budget neutral' situation necessitates a limited acquisition profile within the currently programmed FYDP funding."

Asked why the mission the aircraft would be doing is not listed online, the service responded "Due to security sensitivities, we were directed to exclude it from the FedBizOpps release."

Among the requirements listed in a PDF from that industry day:

  • Capacity to carry 2 aircrew and a minimum of 5 mission crew members
  • PME and mission workstations totaling 13,000 lbs
  • Self protection system, including "EO/IR countermeasures in the automatic and manual mode must have a 95% probability of preventing a successful engagement of MANPADS or SAMs"
  • Minimum available cabin volume: 664 cubic feet
  • a minimum 170 kVA to power the PME
  • be capable of performing on-station loiter for a minimum of 3.5 hrs at a minimum of 41,000 feet MSL
  • Worldwide deployment and sustainment of a 85% aircraft availability rate for 600 flight hours annually
  • Maintain a minimum 25 year airframe service life
  • Refueling capability is not necessary

One source speculated that the service may consider picking the same airframe for both JSTARS and the Compass Call recapitalization, with an eye towards shared efficiencies in parts and maintenance. However, a final decission does not appear to have been made on tying those two programs together. The winner of JSTARS is expected to be selected in the summer or early fall of 2017.

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta 

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.

More In Training & Sim