Senior U.S. Air Force leaders have suggested that the JSTARS recapitalization (e.g. replacement) may need rethinking, but they have also said that the current source selection process is on schedule and will continue. Speaking to media at the Air Force Association (AFA) Air, Space and Cyber Conference, the Air Combat Command (ACC) commander Gen. Mike Holmes and the acquisition chief Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch said that the air defense threat to larger ISR platforms had increased, and that there might be other ways to acquire ground moving target indicator (GMTI) data, and to do battle management, command and control (BMC2).
Three contenders for the new JSTARS have submitted bids and are preparing best and final offers (BAFOs) with the expectation of source selection next March. Boeing has proposed its 737-700 airliner as the platform; Lockheed Martin favors the Bombardier Global 6000 business jet; and Northrop Grumman the Gulfstream G550 business jet. All three contenders are required to provide 10 onboard system operator stations, and to integrate new surveillance radars from either Raytheon or Northrop Grumman. The Air Force will make a separate choice of this primary sensor for JSTARS.
The service previously said that it plans to award an engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) contract valued at $6.9 billion. The EMD phase calls for the delivery of three test aircraft, with options for two low-rate initial production and 12 production aircraft over three lots, for a total of 17. The current fleet of 16 converted Boeing 707 airliners designated E-8C is aging, and the Air Force hopes to achieve initial operating capability with the replacement aircraft in 2022.
The Air Force has previously sponsored or conducted a number of studies on the new JSTARS. But none have questioned the fundamentals, such as whether the BMC2 function need be conducted by airborne operators, or whether airborne platforms are more vulnerable now. “The threat constantly changes and improves,” Holmes noted. He then referred to possible interim and incremental solutions and to whether modern agile communications could offer an alternative that included ground processing. “I don’t apologize for taking another look,” he added.
Bunch suggested that there might be “different ways to get GMTI.” When asked whether it was fair to the contending contractors to delay or abandon the requirement after they had made substantial investments in their bids, Bunch noted that the two radar contenders had both already received risk-reduction contracts. He seemed to suggest that the source selection would still be made but the contract award would be delayed or even scrapped.
Meanwhile, in another media briefing, the head of Strike Command General Robin Rand did not disagree with a suggestion that the forthcoming B-21 stealth bomber might act as a specialized penetrating ISR platform, including the JSTARS mission. He said that the objective of acquiring only 100 B-21s would be re-assessed because “there are a lot of missions to be done.”