Lockheed Martin and Boeing lose out in E-10A competition as budget uncertainty over USAF programme persists

A Northrop Grumman-led team is to install a 25-seat command centre inside a testbed platform for the Boeing 767-400ER-based E-10A Multi-Sensor Command and Control Aircraft (MC2A), beating bids by Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

But in capturing the E-10A battle management command and control (BMC2) subsystem contract, the company inherits a programme still in the midst of upheaval and cost-cutting.

Budget uncertainty was felt even in the manner of the contract award, which departed from the usual practice of listing the full cost of the development phase. The air force announced a BMC2 award of $62 million, only a fraction of the estimated $308 million development cost. No reason was given.

Once the unchallenged centrepiece of the USAF leadership's vision for a fleet of aircraft in which sensors are paired with on-board processors and decision-makers, the E-10A has faced repeated attacks from Congressional committees and from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which had to be persuaded last December not to cancel the programme.

The air force then descoped the programme to focus on two core mission areas - time-sensitive targeting and cruise-missile defence. This shift had the largest impact on the BMC2 programme, which had its requirements thinned by about 40%. Deferred capabilities included full control of unmanned air vehicles and providing a composite picture of the battlefield by combining data from several onboard and offboard sensors.

Northrop Grumman's bid, meanwhile, was perhaps aided by the cutbacks. Company executives emphasised that, as the E-10A prime contractor, the company could more easily transfer funds between subsystem accounts as air force requirements changed.

Northrop Grumman is observing a 10-day waiting period for a protest deadline to lapse before providing specifics on its winning proposal, but it is possible the company will make up for some of the lost requirements.

In the competition, all three bidders were pushed to observe the cost limit but offer as much capability as possible. Perhaps recognising this strategy could provoke false promises, the air force compared each bid to a detailed independent cost estimate.

"If you're below [the estimate], we told them we'll categorise that as a risk factor," says Marvin Sambur, assistant secretary of the air force for acquisition. Contractors had to justify any parts of their bids that deviated significantly from the independent quote, or face expulsion from the contest.

Northrop Grumman's victory rules out participation in the E-10A programme by Lockheed Martin, the only one of the five largest US aerospace prime contractors not to have a major role in the programme.

Northrop Grumman is leading the E-10A system integration, developing BMC2 and sharing with Raytheon the development of the aircraft's ground moving-target indicator Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) sensor. Boeing is involved on Northrop Grumman's E-10A integration team, as well as providing the 767-400ER aircraft.

Source: Flight International