The Air Force Association holds its annual Air & Space Conference this week, Sept. 14-16, and we'll be covering it online with blogging, news files and photos. To start the week right we're posting recent stories covering that field. The story below first appeared in the Sept. 7 Aviation Week & Space Technology. E-8C Engine Upgrades in Peril
David Fulghum and Amy Butler
Upgrades for the E-8C Joint Stars aircraft that would allow it to operate more effectively in Afghanistan are being threatened by what critics in the Pentagon and Congress say are flawed analyses and by zeal for cutting budgets in Fiscal 2011 and beyond.
Military strategists are worried that the financial juggling could scupper plans to create a second Joint Stars orbit in order to focus support on the increasingly lethal war in Afghanistan. Because of the small number of E-8Cs, the T-3 test aircraft—with advanced engines and a full-motion video sensor—was expected to do double duty as part of the new orbit.
Disgruntled Air Force and aerospace industry officials accuse Air Combat Command—which they consider fighter-pilot dominated—of sacrificing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) programs so that it can preserve platforms such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Air Force V-22 and the new tanker.
Joint Stars reengining is only one of a number of programs being offered by the services for cuts in the 2011-15 future-years defense plan. The proposals are leaking out and include about a two-thirds cut to Air Force Block 40 Global Hawk production and a one-year delay for the operational introduction of the Navy’s related Broad-Area Maritime Surveillance version of the RQ-4. That could be particularly worrisome, since the NATO Air-Ground Surveillance program is now funded and the project’s memorandum of understanding is about to be signed. Disrupted production would ripple down to international customers.
Other programs on the proposed hit list, which in past years has totaled up to a 10% cut divided among the services, includes the Joint Tactical Radio System, C-130 Avionics Modernization Plan, Wideband Global Satellite Communications program and Small-Diameter Bomb.
Of the 17 operational Joint Stars aircraft, five are already deployed, four are in maintenance and eight are dedicated to training at Robbins AFB, Ga. The test aircraft plus some training aircraft would have to restationed to create the second orbit.
Industry officials say the results of a Fleet Viability Board have been misinterpreted by some in the Air Force to justify delaying and cutting the Joint Stars upgrade program. Air Combat Command, for example, has called for an analysis of alternatives (AOA) of other airframes. The delay caused by an AOA would ensure all or most of the E-8C improvements would die, say aerospace industry officials. Those who have seen the board’s recommendation, say that despite uncertainties about long-term airframe structural life triggered by the group’s approach, the study says the Air Force “should go ahead with reengining of the fleet.” That would allow the aircraft to meet operational requirement thresholds for time on station and to fly from a larger number of airfields in Afghanistan, thereby extending the useful surveillance time of the aircraft.
The Air Force decision to cut Joint Stars funding is in review by the Defense secretary’s office, and when it was briefed earlier to acquisition chief Ashton Carter as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review’s ISR effort, he said, according to a participant, “What doesn’t the Air Force understand” about the need to improve ISR for which Gates himself is an avowed supporter? Supporters worry that the Air Force will shut down the reengining program immediately before there can be intervention by Congress or Gates’s office.
The Joint Stars modification program has several elements—radar software, engines and additional sensors.
A new low-cost, radar software upgrade is available for the E-8C Joint Stars that would let it track people moving at walking speed at ranges up to 150 mi. This would enlarge the concept of operations—for Afghanistan in particular—for the airborne ground surveillance radar system.
Specifically, the Dismounted Moving Target Indicator (DMTI) capability would allow the mission crew to conduct a normal wide-area scan and to simultaneously watch a dozen or more 10-sq.-mi. patches in greater detail. The improved software would allow adjustments to the area under surveillance and the rates at which the designated areas are scanned.
Because of its phased array design, the radar can focus additional power on these small areas of interest and scan them more often. The intensified surveillance allows operators to find smaller, slower targets.
The operational need is to monitor U.S. supply routes from Pakistan to Afghanistan for insurgent teams planting improvised explosive devices. It also would allow monitoring of choke points in the rough terrain to see where insurgent groups are moving, thereby providing early warning of attacks on U.S. and coalition troops.
Data from such detailed surveillance could also cue additional “soda-straw” electro-optical observations from higher-flying UAVs to provide the visual verification of targets required for approval of weapons release.
A single E-8C Joint Stars (T-3 testbed) equipped with more powerful Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 engines is expected to conduct a series of test flights in Afghanistan next summer, although so far there is no Air Force program for the effort. Currently, Joint Stars aircraft must fly their Afghanistan missions from a near-sea-level air base in Qatar because of thrust and runway-length restrictions required by use of the older PW-TF33-102C engines. In fact, to meet takeoff requirements, the aircraft departs with so little fuel on board that it needs to find a tanker within 45 min. of takeoff.
The higher operational altitudes, made possible by the new engines, would also allow improved surveillance of the high mountains and deep valleys in the Hindu Kush.
About $600 million spent on the program through Fiscal 2010 has already paid for seven shipsets of engines out of the 19 needed to reequip the fleet. The total allocation of $1.4 billion should pay for itself through decreased maintenance by 2017 and create a savings of $10 billion in sustainment costs by Fiscal 2035.
In a third improvement, Joint Stars may be equipped with new and additional sensors, in particular the Senior Year Electro-optical Reconnaissance System (SYERS III). It is an evolution of the earlier U-2 SYERS II and can provide both multispectral sensing and full-motion video. The sensor would be demonstrated on the Joint Stars T-3 testbed, which also will carry the new engines.
Having high-definition, long-range radar and SYERS on the same aircraft would solve a problem for operators in Afghanistan. Weapons release cannot be ordered with only a radar image. That requires an optical image of the target for positive identification. But the combination, in a single aircraft, of radar as a cuing device and a SYERS III for rapid visual identification makes Joint Stars a real-time combatant. The T-3 testbed is to receive SYERS III through a congressionally directed demonstration program. There is no program of record yet to equip the 17-aircraft operational fleet.
Despite its potential, the Joint Stars project is expected to become a budget battlefield over its engine upgrades when Congress returns after its summer break.
Development continues on a new engine for the E-8C; however, production funding for the purchase of the new propulsion systems appears to be on hold. A decision on when and whether to reengine the fleet will depend largely on the outcome of a study on ground moving target indication (GMTI) collection.
“In no way, shape or form is the Air Force walking away from GMTI capability,’ says Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, military deputy for the Air Force’s acquisition office. This review will begin early next year and will address the type and quality of GMTI required—dictating the technical elements of a future sensor—as well as what platform would be most suitable to carry the system. Shackelford made his comments during an Aug. 27 press briefing at the Pentagon.
“A by-product of reengining is the additional power to support a sensor upgrade,” says Shackelford. “That brings to mind [the question of] what kind of sensor do you want on your platform.”
Furthermore, Joint Stars is facing diminishing manufacturing sources on the “back end” of the aircraft, which refers to the computer workstations on which radar data are processed and disseminated, he says. “When you start thinking about investment on the platform and keeping it around for a long, long time you have to put all of these pieces together to decide what we want to do. That is another thing that is under deliberation.”
Northrop Grumman officials say the aircraft’s back end was designed as an open architecture to accept commercial off-the-shelf upgrades. In fact, there are elements of the Battle Management Command & Control package designed for the now-canceled E-10 Multi-Sensor Command & Control aircraft that can be used. The BMC2 package and the additional electrical power from the new engines would lay the groundwork for a new active, electronically scanned array radar to replace the mechanically scanned, phased array APY-7. A nonmoving radar would be more reliable and have a broader frequency response, higher power and faster processing.