USAF project stalls as leaders put spotlight on budget

Approval for the system development and demonstration (SDD) phase of the US Air Force's next wide area surveillance aircraft fleet has been delayed by 12 months until June 2005, as top Department of Defense leaders intensify scrutiny of the $5.3 billion programme.

Earlier this year, USAF officials described the Northrop Grumman E-10A Multi-sensor Command and Control Aircraft (MC2A), which initially is planned to replace the E-8 JSTARS surveillance fleet, as the service's second-highest acquisition priority, trailing only the USAF's Lockheed Martin F/A-22 programme.

But in recent weeks the five-aircraft E-10A fleet has emerged as an early target of Pentagon budget planners formulating the fiscal 2005 budget proposal.

Michael Wynne, head of defence acquisition, signed off on the E-10A delay on 4 December, but also directed the USAF to begin developing the aircraft's critical sensor - the Northrop Grumman/Raytheon Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program (MP-RTIP) ground surveillance system.

The delay of the E-10A deals a second major blow to Boeing's ambition to deploy the 767 as a military platform in the USA. The USAF's KC-767 tanker deal is on hold while the military's inspector general investigates allegations of misconduct. The air force has already ordered the first 767-400ER to serve as the E-10A programme's flying testbed, but orders for the four additional aircraft could now be delayed until the start of the SDD phase.

Aside from this setback, the E-10A's pre-development schedule is continuing on course. Rival teams led by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are refining final bids for the aircraft's $400 million battle management command and control (BMC2) suite. The USAF will select a winner by April.

The go-ahead for MP-RTIP allows the air force to continue developing the E-10A's primary sensor and to begin fielding a smaller version of the sensor for the RQ-4B Global Hawk, says Northrop Grumman MP-RTIP programme director Dave Mazur.

Despite clear reservations about the E-10A's mission, Wynne expressed strong support for the MP-RTIP concept of a platform-independent ground moving target indicator.

Source: Flight International