Northrop Grumman officials are seeking ways to revitalise the E-8C JSTARS ground surveillance fleet now in competition with multi-mission surveillance aircraft, but have raised new concerns about the US Air Force's acquisition process.
USAF officials have not showed Northrop an initial capabilities document completed in 2009 that could launch a competition to replace or upgrade the E-8C, says Bill Moore, the company's director of sensor systems.
Although the service is not required to release the document to industry, it usually does, he adds.
"It would be beneficial for them to solicit feedback," Moore says. "The worst thing that could happen is you ignore it, but at least you have the feedback."
The E-8C's future is being threatened by a rival proposal submitted to the USAF from the Boeing P-8 aerial ground surveillance (AGS) aircraft, a derivative of the 737-based anti-submarine and patrol aircraft in development for the US and Indian navies.
Boeing submitted the P-8 AGS proposal last year after the USAF launched an analysis of alternatives seeking options for the ground moving target indicator capability currently provided by the E-8C's APY-7 radar.
The USAF started looking for options after Northrop's price tag to upgrade the E-8C with a new multi-platform radar technology insertion programme sensor reached $5.2 billion.
Boeing countered that it could deliver a fleet of new P-8 AGS for the same price, but also including the Raytheon advanced aerial sensor radar and weapons.
Meanwhile, Northrop is steadily working to improve the E-8C's surveillance capabilities. In August, the company completed four flights of the T-3 testbed aircraft equipped with the Goodrich MS-177 (previously SYERS-3), a new version of the multi-spectral sensor flown aboard the Lockheed U-2.
Northrop is now waiting for the USAF to decide whether to integrate the sensor on the rest of the E-8C fleet, or simply continue using the T-3 testbed before installing the MS-177 on other platforms.