The U.S. Air Force has long been the global leader in airborne surveillance and reconnaissance. However, its fleet of 73 electronic aircraft has become quite aged. The AWACS early-warning planes average 35 years of age, JSTARS ground-trackers average 45 years, and Rivet Joint eavesdropping aircraft are about to reach 50 years. The planes need to be replaced, because their advanced age makes them increasingly expensive to maintain and eventually will make them downright dangerous to fly. With fighters, bombers and tankers all in need of replacement, though, the service isn’t likely to find money for modernizing electronic aircraft too in the current budget environment. The only plausible solution is to modify 737 commercial jetliners to do the missions, leveraging $6 billion in investment the Navy has already made. That can be accomplished without increasing funds programmed for the electronic fleet. In fact, taking action now to acquire more efficient 737s could save $100 billion across the lifetime of the fleet. I have written a commentary you can read here.
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