During the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force acquired a diverse fleet of electronic-surveillance and intelligence-gathering aircraft based on the Boeing 707 transport (the same airframe used for the KC-135 aerial-refueling tanker). The best known of these is the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, that monitors airspace and coordinates defense against hostile aircraft. Other electronic aircraft utilizing the 707 airframe include the E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) that tracks and images moving ground targets, and the RC-135 Rivet Joint signals-intelligence aircraft.
The virtue of hosting sensors on the 707 is that it can generate a great deal of electricity to power the sensors, its dimensions are big enough to permit wide apertures that can detect fine details at great distance, and there is sufficient internal space for numerous operators and analysts. However, nothing lasts forever and most airlines retired their last 707s a generation ago. The airframe is showing signs of metal fatigue, corrosion and parts obsolescence, despite numerous efforts to patch and upgrade on-board systems. Eventually, the fleet will need to be replaced.
During the Rumsfeld era, the service had a recapitalization plan championed by former Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper that envisioned using a common airframe for all three missions — air surveillance, ground surveillance and electronic eavesdropping. Designated the E-10 Multisensor Command and Control Aircraft, the effort would have developed a Boeing 767-based electronic aircraft in three variants to perform a vast array of reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering missions. At the time, the service expected to buy the 767 as its replacement of the KC-135 tanker, so there would have been significant economies in using the 767 for electronic missions too.
The E-10 program came unraveled because space enthusiasts around defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld favored conducting next-generation surveillance missions from space rather than from airborne platforms. That approach would have been wildly expensive, and the centerpiece of the space approach, called Space-Based Radar, was canceled even before President Bush left office. But that has left the fate of all the electronic missions currently hosted on Cold War aircraft unclear. The service seems to be doing everything it can to kill off the JSTARS aircraft, perhaps because it mainly supports ground forces rather than the Air Force. For instance, it has refused to install upgrades that would enhance radar functionality and has tried to avoid buying more fuel-efficient engines.
Rather than allowing its electronic fleet to decay in piecemeal fashion, the Air Force needs a coherent plan as to how it intends to maintain and improve airborne sensing capabilities. Unmanned aircraft, the technological flavor of the day, aren’t really suited to many of the missions because they can’t generate enough electricity, can’t support wide-aperture sensors, and can’t host on-board analysts. Some kind of larger, manned aircraft such as a Boeing 737 or Boeing 767 will need to be modified to carry on the missions. So where’s the plan? This is one area among many where the Air Force needs to do a better job of defining and defending its future needs.
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