At the end of 2006, a handful of Lockheed P-3C Orions were spotted carrying a new payload. The US Navy has long tasked its airborne submarine hunters to search for overland targets but this was something new. Within a few months, the payload and the P-3C's new mission were confirmed by navy officials. The aircraft was carrying the secretly-developed Raytheon littoral surveillance radar system (LSRS), meaning the P-3C had entered the exclusive business of detecting targets moving on the ground.
At the beginning of 2007, the US Air Force, which invented ground moving target indication (GMTI) in the late-1980s, was moving in the opposite direction.
Northrop Grumman's E-10A multisensor command and control aircraft was cancelled and the future of its potentially revolutionary sensor - the Northrop/Raytheon multi-platform radar technology insertion programme - was unclear. The air force was left to preserve a fleet of 17 707-based E-8C joint surveillance target attack radar systems (JSTARS) and its APY-7 radar.
The air force has a fleet of 17 707-based E-8C JSTARS systems
It must have made USAF leaders uncomfortable to watch the navy continue to develop its GMTI capabilities. In June 2009, Raytheon was awarded a contract to develop a new GMTI radar called the advanced airborne sensor (AAS) for the Boeing 737-based P-8A Poseidon. The navy's next-generation submarine hunter would also have access to a new GMTI radar. Within a year of the AAS unveiling, the USAF had launched a study to consider alternatives to the E-8C JSTARS to perform the GMTI mission. The analysis of alternatives (AoA) study team were asked to consider options including a modernised E-8C, plus other manned, unmanned and even lighter-than-air options. Boeing had shrewdly anticipated the USAF's interest in an alternative to the E-8C fleet. In February 2010, it unveiled the airborne ground surveillance (AGS) concept at the Air Force Association (AFA) symposium. It would be based on a new airframe, share commonality with the Navy's P-8A, and be equipped with the AAS sensor.
Nearly two years later, the AoA team is still at work, having entered a second study phase, but the budgetary outlook for a new-start acquisition programme has changed dramatically since the USAF team began the AoA. Perhaps with the new fiscal reality in mind, Boeing delivered a new sales pitch on behalf of the P-8A AGS at the AFA's annual convention in September. Instead of somehow finding billions of dollars in a declining long-term budget plan, the USAF could start the recapitalisation of the E-8C fleet in 2016. The money would come from retiring six or seven E-8Cs and re-investing the savings in the P-8 AGS acquisition programme.
It would not be the first time the USAF used this strategy. The USAF retired 250 fighters in 2010 and applied the operational cost savings to keep up with cost increases in the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II programme, said Jim Eisenhart, a Boeing senior manager of business development. The USAF also retired six Rockwell B-1B Lancers and used the savings to pay for fleet upgrades.
Northrop, however, argues that a more persuasive strategy is modernising the aircraft the USAF already has. "If you look at the environment we're in, it's fiscally constrained and potentially contracting," said David Nagy, vice-president of the JSTARS integrated product team. "In that environment, my own opinion is, if you've got a solid weapon system and it's proven, then the marginal investments you make is best made in a platform like that for the future. You don't have to recaptialise. For an incremental expenditure, make what you have significantly more capable."
The E-8C does require marginal investments to remain relevant in the fleet. The cost to operate 707-based aircraft has increased sharply in the past 10 years. Maintaining the E-8Cs' four Pratt & Whitney TF33-102C engines consumes 35% of all depot-level support costs, Nagy said. The USAF started a programme to re-engine the aircraft with P&W JT8Ds, but amid cost overruns the service put the programme on hold as the AoA was launched.
Northrop has also been experimenting with other sensors. The APY-7 radar is designed to detect targets but another aircraft with a camera is often required to positively identify the tracks. Two years ago, Northrop installed the Goodrich MS-177 on the JSTARS testbed. The MS-177 is the latest in the series of optical sensors developed for the Lockheed U-2 Dragon Lady. So far, integrating such a sensor across the JSTARS fleet is on hold pending the result of the AoA. Another upgrade involves adding radar arrays in the cheek stations on either side of the E-8C forward fuselage. "Those aren't huge investments," Nagy said. "It was under $3 billion for the next 15 years on the JSTARS modernisation side to essentially bring to closure all of the key upgrades."
Raytheon won a contract to develop a new GMTI radar for the Boeing 737-based P-8A Poseidon
In the end, billions of dollars are needed to acquire new P-8A AGS's or modernise the E-8C. There might be an alternative and, once again, the navy has made a move first. Faced with the cost of acquiring a special EP-X version of the P-8A fleet to replace the Lockheed EP-3E ARIES II, a signals-collecting aircraft, the navy baulked. Instead, in late July the navy confirmed the EP-3E fleet would be replaced by a mix of unmanned aircraft systems, including the Northrop MQ-4C broad area maritime surveillance aircraft, the unmanned carrier launched airborne surveillance and strike aircraft, and the medium-range, maritime aircraft. Part of the AoA is considering a similar mix of UAS for the JSTARS mission, with the Northrop RQ-4B Global Hawk and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems' MQ-9 Reaper among the leading candidates. The AoA is also considering next-generation technologies to be demonstrated by 2015. That strategy allows the AoA team to consider new technologies such as the Lockheed Integrated Sensor is Structure (ISIS), a high-altitude airship with a radar thousands of times more powerful than anything that can fit on a 707 or 737. Lockheed plans to demonstrate the ISIS airship in 2014. By accepting such a strategy, however, the USAF drops the command and control capability offered by the onboard JSTARS battle management staff. In these lean times, sometimes the best option is preserving the capabilities the service already has.