It has been a turbulent decade for the USAF’s E-8C Joint STARS fleet. Khalem Chapman explores the platform’s history, failed replacement programmes and uncertain future.
Northrop Grumman’s E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS or JSTARS) is the result of a combined US Air Force/US Army programme that sought a
platform able to detect, track, identify, and support the attack of enemy ground units beyond the forward operating area of allied forces.
The E-8C – an extensively modified Boeing 707-300 commercial airliner repurposed and integrated with radar, communications and control subsystems – made its first flight in December 1988. The USAF operates Joint STARS in an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), airborne battle management, command and control role. Its primary mission is to provide ISR imagery, detecting and targeting enemy ground forces – such as tanks and convoys – and relaying that information to allied ground and air units.
The most prominent addition to the 707-300 is Northrop Grumman’s AN/APY-7 multi-mode, side-looking, passive, phased-array radar antenna – housed in a 40ft (12m) canoe-shaped radome under the forward fuselage. It is 24ft (7.3m) long and – according to the USAF – can detect, track and identify up to 600 enemy units simultaneously at ranges of more than 152 miles (250km). A variety of dif erent operational modes include fixed target indication (FTI), synthetic aperture radar (SAR), target classification, wide-area surveillance and ground moving target indicator (GMTI). The antenna can be tilted to either side of the aircraft, producing a 120° field of view that covers almost 19,305 square miles (50,000km2). It also has a limited ability to track helicopters and slow-moving, fixed-wing aircraft at low altitudes.
JSTARS in service
The Joint STARS made its operational combat debut while still in development. Two E-8As were deployed to support Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and a pre-production E-8C was part of the USAF’s contribution to Operation Joint Endeavour – a NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1995-96).
In December 1997, the USAF declared the platform’s initial operational capability (IOC). Since then, Joint STARS crews have recorded more than 110,000 combat flying hours in Europe, Africa and the Middle East – including operations Allied Force (1999), Enduring Freedom (2001-14), Iraqi Freedom (2003-11) and Odyssey Dawn (2011).
The 16 aircraft of the USAF’s E-8C Joint STARS fleet are headquartered at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. The platforms are operated under Air Combat Command’s (ACC’s) 461st Air Control Wing (ACW) and the 116th ACW of the Georgia Air National Guard (ANG). The 138th Military Intelligence Company of the US Army – a detachment that trains and deploys aircrew on the Joint STARS platform – is also present at the base.
In early November 2019, the service ended 18 years of continuous E-8C deployment at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, where it supported US Central Command (CENTCOM) operations in the Middle East. The deployment was the second-longest in USAF history and encouraged the service to establish ‘Team JSTARS’ – its first Total Force Initiative wing. During the deployment, Joint STARS crews recorded 114,426 combat flying hours across 10,938 sorties, flying daily sorties of as long as 11 hours each.
The USAF began the Joint STARS Recapitalisation (JSTARS Recap) programme in 2014, as an alternative to spending up to US$11bn in sustainment and operational costs needed to ensure the E-8C’s relevance and airworthiness. The idea of replacing the platform originated five years earlier. Before the programme officially started, Northrop Grumman was leading an engine replacement and upgrade effort on the E-8C, which would have seen the TF33-102Cs replaced with the more powerful, efficient and cheaper Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 low-bypass turbofan, along with upgrades to the data link equipment. However, this was scrapped in 2009.
In 2010, the USAF began an analysis of alternatives (AoA) study, seeking options for a next-generation GMTI radar aircraft. The study concluded in March 2012, with a recommendation that the service procure a commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS), business-jet-based aircraft to replace the E-8C – following appropriate, mission-relevant modification and system integration. The Joint STARS Recap aimed to source and procure this platform through a competitive industry tender, resulting in the award of individual contracts for aircraft development, airborne sensor, battle management command and control (BM2C) system and communications subsystems. Using a business jet as the host for the planned Joint STARS replacement would have provided the USAF with a more efficient aircraft compared with the E-8C.
However, briefing documents released by the service in 2014 stated that the new aircraft must be able to accommodate a crew of ten to 13 and house a 13ft (3.96m) to 20ft (6.1m) radar array under the fuselage – something of a reduction when compared with the E-8C. Having fewer mission specialists and a smaller radar system would have reduced its capabilities and the reduced size would have made integration of other sensor systems more challenging. Following a USAF-held industry day in 2014, National Defense magazine reported that programme managers of the JSTARS Recap had outlined their interest in adding a nose-based aerial refuelling capability, an integrated FAA-certified flight deck along with new capabilities such as beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) communications with unmanned aerial systems (UAS), full-motion video and the Joint Range Extension Applications Protocol (JREAP) – which would enable crews to transmit data to multiple consumers at greater distances.
The USAF initially planned a rapid acquisition process, aiming to award contracts by the end of US FY 2016. It also wanted the new platform to achieve IOC by 2022 – which was later pushed to 2023. The service announced plans to begin phasing out E-8C Joint STARS from service, starting in 2019. The USAF aimed to procure 17 aircraft – two test aircraft, followed by the low rate production of three more before the 2023 IOC and the final 12 to be acquired through full-rate production in 2024.
Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were each awarded a one-year pre-engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) contract in 2015 prior to a full, open competition beginning in 2017. Boeing proposed a platform based on the business-jet version of its 737-700, the Boeing Business Jet 1 (BBJ1) – a promising contender if the USAF opted for a slightly larger platform. Lockheed Martin teamed up with Raytheon and L-3 Communications in its bid. Lockheed Martin eventually selected the Bombardier Global Express 6000 as its host aircraft. It is operational in a similar capacity in the RAF, where it’s known as the Sentinel R1. The USAF also uses the Global Express 6000 as a battlefield airborne communications relay aircraft, designated the E-11A. Northrop Grumman offered a solution using the Gulfstream G550 business jet. At the time, the company had already employed the G550 as a Joint STARS testbed and mission crew trainer, operating from its Manned Aircraft Design Center in Melbourne, Florida.
Following this, the programme began to decline in the service’s priorities. In the US FY 2019 budget briefing, the USAF announced it was cancelling the JSTARS Recap programme and would instead fund the development of an Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS).
A new direction
The USAF touts the ABMS as a battle management surveillance, command and control capability operating across air, land and sea, but the programme is still in its adolescence and the service has yet to fully determine and finalise an acquisition strategy and full capability.
According to a statement by Michael J Sullivan, director of Contracting and National Security Acquisitions in a US Government Accountability Office (GAO) testimony before the Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, in May 2019, planning of the ABMS began in 2017. It was originally intended to “replace and [modernise] the capabilities of the AWACS system” essentially focusing on improving the E-3 Sentry’s ability to detect, identify and track airborne/maritime threats. The development outline for the ABMS changed, with the USAF wanting a more robust battle management system with a higher degree of survivability against technologically advanced military forces – such as Russia and China – and an ability to operate over air, land and sea in contested environments more efficiently and effectively – factors that were key to the downfall of JSTARS Recap. The ABMS plan also details upgrades for UAS platforms, including the MQ-9 Reaper and it would also be appropriate for the RQ-4D Global Hawk reconnaissance UAV.
Development of the ABMS has been split into three phases. In the first – which began in US FY 2018 and will continue until 2023 – the USAF will integrate existing, matured sensors; improve legacy command-and-control nodes and battle management systems; and upgrade communication networks across ten existing platforms. This includes JSTARS and AWACS aircraft and will involve upgrading the E-8C Joint STARS programme’s common data link communication subsystem – digital equipment that links aerial/space-based platforms and common ground stations.
The USAF is still developing phases two and three. The second part of the ABMS programme is scheduled to begin in 2024 and will focus on integrating advanced sensors and software into its existing battle management command and control platforms. The third and final phase – expected to begin in the mid-2030s – is to provide the ABMS with a multi-sensor, resilient battle management command and control capability, created using multiple communication methods. The USAF estimates that ABMS acquisition costs will be about US$3.8bn (up to the end of US FY 2024) and it aims to achieve IOC by 2035.
US defence officials have stated that the final form of the ABMS will involve a mix of manned/unmanned aircraft, data links and space-based assets. In terms of the provision of ground tracking capabilities, the programme will assess the information gathered during the JSTARS Recap, factoring it into AMBS development.
Defence officials added that ABMS would not be managed by a traditional programme manager, but as a family of systems by a ‘chief architect’ – a first-of-its-kind position in the USAF. This role was filled by Preston Dunlap – appointed Chief Architect of the Air Force in March 2019 – who will lead high-level analysis, determine ABMS design and communicate with service commands and other programmes to ensure they are aligned with ABMS development, while identifying new technologies for integration. Dunlap said: “In order to develop the right capability that the operator needs at speed, we partner with combatant commanders every four months to ensure that what we are building addresses the array of challenges presented by the National Defense Strategy across the globe.”
In December 2019, the ABMS completed a three-day field test, during which the USAF worked alongside the US Army and US Navy to rapidly share data concerning a cruise missile attack on the US, simulated by unmanned QF-16s. In real time, detection information was relayed to the USS Thomas Hudner – an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer deployed in the Gulf of Mexico – a pair of USAF F-35A Lightning IIs and F-22A Raptors, two US Navy F-35Cs, a US Army M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) mobile missile battery, special operations teams and ground commanders at Eglin AFB, Florida. The information was transmitted via new software and communications equipment employed in a ‘mesh network’
The development of ABMS has a significant ef ect on the USAF’s original plan for the future of its E-8C Joint STARS fleet. Despite being eager to part with the platform by 2019, the air arm will now be retaining its services for the foreseeable future. Sullivan’s GAO testimony in 2019 confirmed this, stating that following a “recent study, the air force has extended the estimated service life of the JSTARS fleet and will incorporate its capabilities into the ABMS in the short term and retire the JSTARS in the 2030s” Along the development timeline, the USAF now expects to retire the E-8C sometime during phase two of the ABMS programme – scheduled to take place between 2024 and the mid-2030s. Retaining the platform for longer than previously planned means the service’s current Joint STARS platform and its ageing 707-based host airframe will need further sustainment and upgrade work to remain relevant in changing military environments and to counter emerging threats and technologies. Echoing this, Northrop Grumman announced on January 9, that it had been awarded a US$302m contract by the USAF to provide sustainment and modification work for its E-8C fleet under a Total System Support Responsibility (TSSR) programme. Little is known about what work will be done under the project.
With its ABMS programme, the USAF is delving into a new concept for battlespace management and sophisticated ground surveillance, improving the architecture to ensure better connectivity and data transfer of key information to personnel across all US military commands. In the past, the USAF opted against Joint STARS modifications and key component upgrades in favour of replacement programmes – which were then cancelled. This policy has now caught up with the type as the USAF fights to keep it relevant in today’s battlespace. Although the E-8C still of ers considerable capability, emerging threats and up-and-coming technologies – such as a growing interest in electronic warfare-capable platforms – mean the Joint STARS’ successor will likely take a very dif erent approach to the mission.
Northrop Grumman E-10 MC2A
In the early 2000s, Northrop Grumman proposed a multi-role military aircraft – known as the E-10 Multi-Sensor Command and Control Aircraft (MC2A) – which would have been capable of replacing the USAF’s E-3 Sentry, E-8C Joint STARS, E-4B ‘Nightwatch’ and RC-135 Rivet Joint fleets.
Development of the E-10 MC2A platform – which would have been hosted on a Boeing 767-400ER commercial airliner – began in 2003, after the project team from Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Raytheon were awarded a US$215m pre-system development and demonstration (pre-SDD) contract. But problems soon began to surface. In August 2003, it was reported that a single platform operating both air and ground search radars would not work due to electronic interference between the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and ground surveillance equipment. As a result, the USAF opted to acquire two versions of the aircraft in dif erent configurations. However, both fleets of E-10s would be integrated with common air/space-based radar systems, along with electronic intelligence (ELINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT) and imagery intelligence (IMINT) equipment.
Despite this, programme restructuring and financial constraints led to the E-10 MC2A programme being edged out by competing projects and it was eventually cancelled in 2007. The air arm’s budget request for US FY 2007 showed that the service had only maintained funding for the development and testing of a single demonstration aircraft, which was stored by Boeing until it was reconfigured into a VIP transport aircraft and sold to Bahrain in 2009.
The E-8C Joint STARS is powered by four Pratt & Whitney TF33-102C low-bypass turbofan engines, giving it a cruising speed of up to 510kts (586mph or 945km/h), a service ceiling of 42,000ft (12,802m) and an endurance of up to nine hours without air-to-air refuelling. The aircraft is 152ft 11in (46.61m) long and 42ft 6in (12.95m) high, with a wingspan of 145ft 9in (44.42m). It requires four flight crew to operate it – a pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and combat systems of icer – and can accommodate up to 18 mission specialists, depending on the mission. Each E-8C Joint STARS platform cost US$244.4m when the service procured them in US fiscal year (FY) 1998, equivalent to US$385.3m today.