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The US Air Force’s $6 billion programme to replace the Boeing 707-based Northrop Grumman E-8C “JSTARS” is shaping up as a battle between platform providers rather than the primes, with Boeing, Bombardier and Gulfstream locked in a three-way contest for the 17-aircraft order.
The prime motivation for radar-carrying aircraft competition is to drastically cut the operating and maintenance cost of the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) by migrating to a modern “business jet” – specifically an aircraft with 80% less fuel consumption than the 707-300 and a 12-person crew, down from 21.
The E-8 made its combat debut in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and has provided critical capability in every major US combat operation since – using its 7.3m (24ft) side-looking phased array radar to detect enemy ground and maritime movements and low-flying aircraft over a 50,000km2 area. Its onboard battle management specialists harness that information to alert friendly ground forces and coordinate counterattacks or air strikes.
Northrop Grumman says it shouldn’t take 16 years for the US Air Force’s to recapitalise the Boeing 707-based E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, and it doesn’t need an 11-month “risk-reduction” phase to get started.
The air force recently awarded $10 million contracts to Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed Martin to mature their competing next-generation JSTARS designs, but Northrop believes it already has an “85% solution” and is ready to proceed to development. If fact, the product is known internally as the "E-8D" since it uses mature technology and is considered more of an evolutionary capability advancement.
Northrop vice president and “JSTARS recap” programme lead Alan Metzger says the company is itching to go faster, and the limiting factor is funding and how fast the air force can go.