Is there hope for a program's future if it is not in the sacred Top Three priorities of the U.S. Air Force—the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the KC-46 aerial refueler and the long-range bomber?
For months, the USAF's message has been tightly controlled. Keep those three programs moving forward; anything else is subject to cuts or, if it is a new start, indefinite deferral. But Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, revealed a peek into his priorities beyond the dramatic sequestration cuts that have derailed military spending plans in recent months.
Aside from his Top Three, Welsh says he would like to start projects to replace the aging E-8C ground-surveillance and T-38 fast-jet trainer fleets. Industry is already prepared for both—with primes and subs pairing off to pursue these projects. But first, Congress must provide a funding profile that will support them, Welsh notes.
Thus, the Air Force is developing two potential budgets—“high” and “low” proposals. The latter takes into account a worst-case scenario of sequestration impacts stretching through fiscal 2015. The former allows for at least some new-start work, though not as much as the service had hoped.
The E-8C Joint Stars fleet is housed on aging Boeing 707 airframes, all of which were purchased as used platforms before being modified with mission systems in the 1990s and 2000s. So, their service life is hampered and maintenance cost is high. That, coupled with a desire from combatant commanders for more and better ground surveillance—tracking ground vehicles to individuals on foot—is behind the need. An analysis of alternatives conducted by the service has pointed to a solid business case for housing the next system on a business jet to access both its speed and low operating cost. And significant advances have been made in active, electronically scanned array radars to allow for multimode detection and tracking of many targets simultaneously.
The E-8Cs are housed on the oldest of the USAF's 707s, but it is likely that the service could embark on a larger recapitalization project to eventually put the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System air surveillance and RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence missions on the same business jet platform.
Industry teams are ready for the T-X program to buy 350 T-38 replacements; the Air Force has slipped the competition, delaying fielding until at least 2023. BAE Systems/Northrop Grumman with the Hawk T2, General Dynamics/Alenia Aermacchi with the M346, and Lockheed Martin/Korea Aerospace Industries with the T-50 are all competing. Boeing, said to be in talks with Saab for a partnership, is eyeing a brand-new design. Gen. Edward Rice, head of the Air Education and Training Center, says he cannot recommend a quick start to T-X in this budget environment because the T-38 is still safe to fly.