The US Air Force has launched the bidding phase in a $6.9 billion competition to select a replacement the Northrop Grumman E-8C JSTARS ground surveillance fleet with a business jet-class aircraft.

The USAF issued the final draft of the request for proposals on 28 December to several bidding teams, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop. Including production options through Fiscal 2026, the JSTARS recaptilisation contract calls for supplying 17 each of aircraft, surveillance radars, communications systems and battle management command and control suites.

In defiance of a stated preference by Congress, the final RFP structures the development contract as a cost-plus incentive fee deal, the USAF says. The report on the National Defense Authorization Act passed earlier this month calls on the USAF to structure the JSTARS Recapitalistion contract as firm fixed-priced deal. But the next sentence in the report allows the Secretary of Defense to waive that requirement if he deems it in the interest of national security.

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter approved such a waiver after an extended discussion within the Pentagon, the air force says.

“Given the language in this year’s defense policy bill, we took additional time before releasing the JSTARS request for proposal. With the support of the Department on the importance of JSTARS to national security, we are moving out to deliver this critical [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James says.

The E-8C mission was conceived by Northrop and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the 1980s. Northrop’s APY-7 ground surveillance radars were installed on a fleet of 17 used Boeing 707s. A team of battle managers onboard the aircraft would analyse the radar data showing mainly the distant movement of enemy vehicles, then forward targeting information to other aircraft with weapons or to commanders on the ground. The concept initially proved its worth in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when an experimental JSTARS system detected a major ground maneouvre attempted by the Iraqi army in a sandstorm.

Twenty-five years later, the 707-based fleet is showing its age while surveillance capability has advanced and proliferated around the services. The US Navy, for example, is fielding Raytheon’s advanced airborne sensor on a subset of the 737-based Boeing P-8A Poseidon fleet, creating a ground surveillance capability similar to the JSTARS. This proposal solicitation is a full and open competition with an anticipated contract award in fiscal year 2018, to have assets available for initial operational capability by the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2024, or earlier.

The USAF wants to modernise the new JSTARS fleet with a new platform, with Boeing offering a 737-700, Northrop bidding a Gulfstream G550 and Lockheed proposing a Bombardier Global 6000. The new JSTARS fleet also will feature a new sensor — either Northrop’s or Raytheon’s latest wide area surveillance radars.