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Renewed JSTARS to feature plug-and-play ISR

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These are still early days in the Air Force’s efforts to recapitalize its Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) program, but some things already are clear.

Since it was first deployed in Operation Desert Storm in 1991, JSTARS has successfully tracked ground vehicles and aircraft, delivered target acquisition and relayed tactical images to commanders in theater. Whatever replaces the aging Boeing 707-based E-8C fleet will be significantly smaller and less expensive to maintain, according to the Air Force. The electronics will incorporate available technology and will be built on open-systems architecture.

While the service has not offered detailed specifications for any new electronics or radar systems, “it is clear the Air Force doesn’t want to embark in long, drawn-out development events,” said Alan Metzger, vice president of the JSTARS Recap Program for Northrop Grumman, manufacturer of the present JSTARS fleet.

The players

On May 7 Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics at the Department of Defense, signed off on an acquisition memo allowing JSTARS recap to begin awarding contracts for the development of a new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform. The contracting process will reach what the Air Force calls Milestone A in late August or early September, according to William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force, who spoke July 9 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The service is expected to spend about $6 billion to acquire and outfit some 17 business-class jets. In return the Air Force expects to see cost savings through reduced maintenance on the aircraft, and also through reduced headcount, with the number of operators needed on board dropping from 21 to about 10.

A number of major players have announced their intention to vie for the JSTARS contract. Boeing has expressed an interest in bringing a more nimble aircraft to the table. Northrop Grumman’s Aerospace Systems sector says it has formed an industry team with General Dynamics and its subsidiary Gulfstream, and with L-3.

Lockheed Martin has tapped Bombardier for an ultra-long-range business jet platform, and it has teamed with Raytheon, though the latter says it is still in talks with Northrop Grumman and Boeing.

The Air Force also opened the competition recently to foreign companies.

In addition to replacing the aging 707 fleet, the recapitalization will include radar subsystems; a communication subsystem; and an integrated battle management command and control suite, the Air Force said.

In each case, the Air Force says it is not looking for groundbreaking innovation in its electronics systems. Across industry it is understood that there is neither the time nor the money available to develop novel sensors and other electronics. In fact, the Air Force has been explicit about this in making its request to industry, noting that the reinvigorated systems will “incorporate currently available technology” rather than seek to swap out today’s radars for some developmental product.

That makes sense, according to Northrop Grumman. In heading up the program, the company has made incremental upgrades, adding improved communications, advanced visualization techniques, new tracking algorithms. “All those upgrades have gone on over time, and all those same capabilities will be available on the next-generation systems,” Metzger said.

Rather than put the emphasis on the development of cutting-edge systems, Raytheon likewise will be focusing on efforts to successfully deploy the fundamental elements presently in play, said Jerry Powlen, vice president of the company’s ISR systems business line.

“The requirements really come from the existing JSTAR systems today. That is really what is creating the definitions of the recap,” he said.

“This is not about developing new radar. JSTARS recap is all about what is ready today, what has a high technological readiness level, a high manufacturing readiness level,” he said. “The Air Force’s priority here is to field something quickly. This is not a development program. They are expecting the technology to be ready and available today.”

Even if electronic systems are ready to roll out on short notice, there will be challenges ahead when it comes to bringing those systems together as a unified whole.

Assembling the pieces

In a solicitation the Air Force indicated the overall platform would need to integrate all of the following key subsystems: the aircraft, the sensors, a communications suite and a Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) suite.

“The JSTARS Recap Program Office will contract for the delivery of a complete integrated weapon system solution, as opposed to holding separate competitions for individual weapon subsystems for subsequent integration,” the Air Force said.

Those vying for the JSTARS contract agree this integration requirement could prove the biggest hurdle on the way to a successful recapitalization program.

“Not all systems are created equal. They all come with their own pedigrees,” Metzger said. “They all come with their own set of requirements, their own set of capabilities.”

It’s not just a matter of ensuring the electronics are compatible. The eventual contractor will need to make certain the integrated systems can be merged into the limitations of the airframe. “The challenge is to take the radar that can deliver the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force requirements, and connect it to an airplane that can deliver mission effective solutions,” Metzger said.

This issue of working within the physical limitations of the aircraft is not a trivial one. “The number of operators will drop from 21 to 10, but they still need to fly the same mission,” Powlen said. That will require greater care in the deployment of physical equipment, as well as greater automation in software.

Open Mission Systems

In an effort to promote integration, the Air Force has said whatever solution eventually arises will need to be based on an open-architecture standard. To that end, Raytheon says it is commitment to working off of the Open Mission System standard, or OMS, an Air Force effort to forge interfaces between mission systems and services using open and standardized interface definitions.

Lockheed Martin in July said it has successfully integrated and flight-tested seven OMS payloads in a span of less than three months. At nearly the same time, Northrop Grumman said it had demonstrated in recent test flights that the OMS standards could be successfully integrated across multiple systems and platforms. “These flights have paved the way for new capabilities to be integrated rapidly and affordably across advanced manned and unmanned aircraft,” the company said in a press release.

Having that baseline of technological congruence could make it easier for all contestants to meet the mark of integration. Integration comes within reach “as long as we all comply to the OMS requirement, which creates standard interfaces, so you can put them together quickly and easily and you can update them as things change over time,” Powlen said.

The Air Force presumably is hoping that an open-standards requirement will help the program to meet its chief mission objective: to save money.

“Any time you can use open modern standards and stay away from proprietary offerings, that creates the opportunity for development by more than one party, and in general competition is perceived to save money,” Metzger said.

While the program appears to be on target for the present, the matter of funding remains an unknown, LaPlante said.

“It’s always worrisome about the budget,” he said. “There are always these programs that are right on the edge, depending on how the budget goes this year.”

Even if things remain on track, he suggested, it may be three years before JSTARS sees full budgetary commitment. ■