The US Air Force has picked Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to carry its infant Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System Recapitalization programme forward, sidelining an unnamed fourth bidder.
The three contracts announced 7 August are worth $10 million to $11.5 million each for a one-year “pre-engineering and manufacturing development effort” aimed at maturing and testing competing designs ahead of a downselect in late 2017.
The air force had anticipated awarding “up to three” contracts, making the announcement an important step toward eventually replacing 16 large, radar-carrying Boeing 707-300s (E-8Cs) integrated by Northrop Grumman with the same or better ground-looking surveillance and battle management capability based on a smaller business jet.
Boeing Defense, Space & Security
The announcement means the frontrunners are still in the race, but the air force's contract announcement says four offers were received, pointing to a sidelined bidder.
Boeing intends to offer a next-generation JSTARS based on its commercial 737-700 BBJ1, and Lockheed and Northrop's designs are based on Bombardier and Gulfstream business jets respectively.
Raytheon and Northrop are the two primary radar providers in the race, with Raytheon offerings its “Skynet” radar (an improved version of its Advanced Airborne Sensor) to all sides, and Northrop considering different options within its portfolio depending on the final requirements.
The air force says it wants to test and demonstrate the competing designs to the maximum extent possible during the pre-EMD risk-reduction phase ahead of a full and open competition in 2017.
Flying prototypes are preferable, air force acquisition chief William LaPlante said recently, and the designs must comply with new open architecture standards recently defined through an industry and government consortium.
The air force intends to award an EMD contract for two test aircraft followed by low-rate production of three aircraft for initial operational capability in late 2023. The remaining 12 aircraft would be purchased through 2024 for a total of 17 jets. Meanwhile, the legacy fleet its due to retire starting in fiscal year 2019.
Northrop is the JSTARS incumbent, supporting the programme from its Manned Aircraft Design Center of Excellence in Melbourne, Florida, where it is currently working on a replacement system being flown on its Gulfstream GV testbed. JSTARS made its combat debut in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and the last E-8C was delivered in 2005.
The JSTARS aircraft is designed to detect moving targets across a 50,000km2 area and onboard air force battle managers and army specialists provide command-and-control and coordination support to ground forces. Despite carrying advanced technology, the E-8C is based on second-hand, repurposed 707s that are becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to maintain.
Whether the programme stays on track for a 2017 EMD award depends largely on budgets, since programmes like the Lockheed Martin F-35, Boeing KC-46, TX next-generation trainer and Long-Range Strike Bomber are also competing for the same limited resources.
Lockheed's JSTARS offer will be based on a Bombardier Global-series platform.