One of the biggest budget puzzles faced by Air Force planners is how to modernize the service’s aging fleet of manned electronic-sensing aircraft. These aircraft come in three flavors: the E-3 AWACS planes that provide air surveillance, the E-8 Joint Stars planes that provide surface surveillance, and the RC-135 Rivet Joint planes that conduct electronic eavesdropping. The Air Force had a plan to replace all three with a common airframe, but that was destroyed during the Rumsfeld years by the insistence of some policymakers that surveillance missions be done in the future from space — a ridiculously costly approach that probably would have proved unworkable. The space idea didn’t go far, but it undermined the plan for a new aircraft, leaving the service with no path forward.
Now, a new approach is emerging from an unlikely place. The U.S. Navy has been developing a successor to its venerable P-3 Orion maritime patrol plane that could provide a low-cost, high-performance solution to the Air Force’s airborne surveillance needs. Designated the P-8A Poseidon, the new Navy plane is based on Boeing’s 737 jetliner that is the most widely used commercial transport in the world. The 737 provides an economical combination of modest fuel consumption, generous space, robust electrical generation and easy worldwide maintainability that makes it the obvious candidate for a land-based patrol plane. Many observers think it is a shoo-in to replace the Navy’s EP-3 eavesdropping plane when the service gets around to recapitalizing that critical asset.
But if the Pentagon is going to spend billions of dollars developing next-generation surveillance planes for the Navy, why would it want to re-invent the wheel by starting over in finding a successor to Air Force surveillance planes? With the Air Force short of money and Secretary Gates determined to cut wasteful spending, leveraging the $5.5 billion investment in the Poseidon to find a solution for Air Force needs seems like a no-brainer. Navy insiders say the P-8 is performing well in tests, and its future mission profiles are quite similar to those of Air Force planes engaged in surveillance of remote targets.
One obvious area where money could be saved is in sustaining the mission of the 17 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System planes that the Air Force uses mainly to support Army warfighters. JSTARS planes use a sideway-gazing radar mounted on the belly of rebuilt Boeing 707s to track and image moving ground targets. They are a remarkably sensitive and versatile system, but the planes and their engines were bought second-hand, so they have to be modernized soon to remain safe. The Air Force isn’t eager to spend $10 billion or more re-engining and upgrading a handful of decrepit airframes, so buying a variant of the new P-8 looks like an attractive alternative. Not only would it be much cheaper to operate, but the new plane would deliver a host of technology enhancements leveraged off the Navy’s P-8 investment that no legacy plane could offer.
The Air Force is currently conducting an “analysis of alternatives” to sort out its options for sustaining the JSTARS mission. The mission can’t be done successfully using planned space assets, and unmanned aircraft lack the size or power-generation capacity required to deliver adequate sensing. So it seems the debate will be mainly about whether to keep an old airplane on life support or buy a new one. With the Navy having already paid most of the development bill for a new plane, the most cost-effective solution to Air Force needs seems pretty obvious.
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