The US Air Force’s has decided to retire its primary aerial ground surveillance platform in the mid-2020s and replace it with a network of existing and new sensors linked to a ground-based command and control system.

The decision announced in the Trump Administration’s budget request for Fiscal 2019 would terminate the Northrop Grumman E-8C JSTARS and cancel a three-way competition to replace the platform with a large business jet or a Boeing 737.

The funding for the JSTARS recapitalization programme will be diverted to pay for development of an advanced battle management system, but details remain scant.

As the E-8C enters retirement in the mid-2020s, the Air Force plans to have the first increment of the advanced battle management system operational, but offered few details.

“We’ll be taking sensors that exist today and maybe putting them on additional aircraft like maybe the MQ-9, and fusing the different sensors from all the areas that exist today,” says Maj Gen John Pletcher, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for Budget.

But the Air Force has not explained how the first increment of the advanced battle management system will replace the aerial ground system on the E-8C. The 7.3m (24ft)-long APY-7 radar is too long to be carried on the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9.

The advanced battle management system concept emerges after the USAF twice reneged on attempts to replace the E-8C fleet. The Air Force cancelled the 767-400ER-derived Northrop Grumman E-10A in the 2007 budget.

Eight years later, the Air Force launched the JSTARS recapitalization programme, hoping to reduce operating costs by down-sizing the platform to a 737, Gulfstream G650 or Bombardier Global 6000. All three competitors – Northrop, Boeing and Lockheed Martin – planned to integrate a new wide area surveillance radar developed by Northrop. The status of that radar development project remains unknown under the air force’s new proposal.

By switching from a platform to a network of systems for the JSTARS missions, the Air Force’s proposed strategy echoes a decision by the US Navy three years ago. Faced with a replacement bill for the Lockheed EP-3E ARIES electronic surveillance fleet, the Navy decided to break up the mission into a network of existing aircraft and sensors, including the Northrop MQ-4C Triton, Northrop MQ-8C Fire Scout, and Boeing P-8A Poseidon.