USAF May Dump Its E-8C JSTARS Replacement Program For A Shadowy “Distributed” Solution

One of the hottest USAF acquisition programs that’s underway is the one to recapitalize the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) fleet that has been based around 16 rickety old 707s for over two and a half decades. Three teams have been vying for the contract led by prime aircraft manufacturers Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. And although the JSTARS replacement system will house radars that specialize in ground moving target indicator (GMTI) and synthetic aperture surveillance capabilities just like its predecessor, they will also have a greater ability to work as networking nodes and flying battle management centers. 

Recently the JSTARS recap program was thrown a curveball when the top rungs of the Pentagon’s leadership suddenly questioned the program’s direction and posited that maybe moving toward an interim “distributed” solution would be a better choice. 

The E-8C JSTARS are critical sensor and battlefield management platforms, but they use a very old and costly platform, the Boeing 707., USAF

It’s still unclear if the program will continue as planned or if it will be delayed or even substituted for a different approach to the whole “battlefield surveillance command and control” (BSC2) mission set, or at least portions of it. Secretary of Defense Mattis said the following at the Air Force Association conference last month:

“I just talked to chief of staff of the air force; we are standing here in front of the room talking about new ways to do the JSTARS mission… I’m eager to hear these efforts to help one another, the other services.”

Head of Air Combat Command General Mike Holmes also stated:

“The question really is, how long do we continue to fund the GMTI [ground moving target indicator] capability in the classic way we’ve done it: with an integrated platform that has a sensor and air battle managers onboard… How much of our threat environment in the future will allow us to do that?” 

What they are likely talking about is a number of dispersed assets, namely unmanned aircraft, upgraded existing aircraft, and possibly satellites, that can “contribute” collectively to a common overall battlefield surveillance “picture,” with battle managers on the ground working the products from these systems. It sounds great but it also relies more heavily on potentially vulnerable data link communications than a centralized manned platform, like the JSTARS recap aircraft, would. 

The truth is that even a new JSTARS aircraft would still increasingly rely on these same types of “distributed” sensor platforms in the future as it will not be able to penetrate close enough to enemy airspace to put its own radar and sensor systems to use in an anti-access/aerial denial combat environment. 

But the radar is just one part of the puzzle, a new JSTARS aircraft will have the ability to manage these assets from afar and distribute their intelligence products to all types of users (ships, aircraft, ground units, high-level command and control etc) which is a proven concept.  

Also, a BSC2 aircraft can fly simpler missions more effectively than a big distributed “system of systems” as it packs the radar, the communications, and the command and control element all in one easily deployable package. So basically, when it comes to the debate over moving forward with a JSTARS recap aircraft or developing an interim distributed concept, we are talking about taking a centralized flying BSC2 node out of the game or not.

The fact that the USAF brass may be willing to step away from a discreet BMC2 solution points to the existence of penetrating stealthy unmanned aircraft that can bring their sensors to bear deep within enemy territory. 

We know the RQ-170 Sentinel can do this on a localized tactical level, and it is thought that it carries a small radar system specifically capable of tracking patterns of life and collecting GMTI data. Larger clandestinely developed Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle like unmanned systems that could also provide this capability at a tactical level, but the USAF also has all but formally disclosed the existence of a high-flying strategic surveillance asset that can fly deep into contested airspace and loiter there for long periods of time without being detected and engaged. 

Unofficially dubbed the RQ-180, this “Tier III” asset, supposedly created by Northrop Grumman, features broadband low observability and can fly at high altitudes for long periods of time. The best analogy is that it is likely akin to a very stealthy and deep penetrating RQ-4 Global Hawk, and its existence may have actually stymied the business case for an expanded Global Hawk fleet to some degree. This aircraft is thought to primarily use a low probability of intercept radar as its primary for GMTI and taking high-resolution radar images of the enemy battlespace. Passive signals intelligence sensors are sure to also be a major feature of the craft. 

But this system also likely has, or can have, the ability to act as a networking node for stealth combat aircraft, and would be able to port information from F-35s, F-22s, B-2s, and even swarming UCAVs, to satellites above and send it to various “fusion” centers where it can be rebroadcasted into the cockpits of less capable aircraft working in more permissive environments and be exploited by battlefield commanders in real time. It may also be able to facilitate, now or in the future, robust two-way communication and data sharing between stealthy assets, which each feature their own stealthy data-link waveforms and modems, working over contested airspace. Think of it as a high-flying universal translator similar to the E-11 BACN but for use in highly contested environments. 

The USAF new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider, which is more of a multi-role platform than a traditional bomber, could also provide many of these capabilities as well, but it is a longer-lead capability that is not slated to comes online until well into the next decade. 

Notice how a stealthy flying wing (shown as a B-2) is pictured above the stealth assets (F-35, F-22, UCAVS) acting as a communications gateway. It is likely that just as the EQ-4 Global Hawk works in a similar role as a BACN platform, the RQ-180 like craft would do the same for stealth assets and their directional and low-probability of intercept data-links. , Lockheed Rendering

Other forms of distributed battlefield surveillance assets include non-stealthy drones, fighters, and bombers that can in some cases use their own advanced radar and sensor systems, especially modular podded ones, to provide ground moving target indicator and other information in less contested combat environments.

So there are likely some intriguing alternative solutions to the battlefield surveillance mission set, with the command and control elements being placed basically anywhere in the world, and connected via an advanced data sharing network, rather than just stuffing a ton of new gear onto a business jet. But once again, this would be relying more on networking and leading edge technologies than fielding a discreet system like a new JSTARS replacement plane. 

Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein not only seems to have little problem with relying more heavily on networking, he actually has made it his preeminent goal to get the USAF to do so during his tenure. He has stated many times how he sees the future of the air force as information centric not platform centric, and this will be provided by advanced networking concepts. With such an outlook, you can see how a centralized JSTARS replacement may seem like a clumsy and dated step in the wrong direction for the former F-117 wing commander. 

Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson before a Senate hearing. , AP

So does dumping billions of dollars into a direct JSTARS replacement make sense? Well in a perfect world there would be money to build out both ends of the BMC2 equation, and really there would be a synergistic effect in doing so. But if that simply isn’t possible at this time, is it worth taking the risk on a distributed concept that relies very heavily on network connectivity over a more traditional centralized one? 

As mentioned earlier, the reality is that it won’t be just one or the other for long. If the JSTARS replacement aircraft gets fielded, it will rely increasingly on distributed assets, especially those that can penetrate into contested airspace, for providing its battlefield “picture,” at least for higher-end conflict scenarios. It is simply a fact of life that a long range business jet won’t be able to survive within an anti-access environment if it wants to bring its own sensors to bear. 

That doesn’t mean it can’t still provide very crucial command and control duties and even possibly provide cruise missile screening and other surveillance and communications relay functions at the same time. It may also be the ideal platform for directing those stealthy assets downrange and to task them dynamically to support a rapidly adapting battle plan.

Lockheed’s Jack O’Banion, Vice President of Strategy and Customer Requirements, Advanced Development Programs (some title right?), made an incredibly slick pitch for the Global Express 6000 based JSTARS replacement aircraft during an interview with Defense News reporter Aaron Mheta. Mheta does an outstanding job asking just the right questions of the Lockheed big whig, and in the exchange O’Branion clearly says some very sensitive capabilities have been ported over from highly classified programs to their JSTARS replacement contender. 

Make sure to watch the video which is linked here

So what is he talking about? I mean this is a flying radar plane, not some hypersonic spy and attack aircraft. Parts of the radar system are surely sensitive in nature, as well as its secondary capabilities (electronic warfare for instance). But it is very possible that he is hinting at the aircraft’s battle management software, and the computer systems and networking tools that support it. That doesn’t sound too hush-hush right? But that likely isn’t the case as such software could very well have been ported over at least partially from high-end battle management software suite used to control semi-autonomous drones over a dynamic battlefield. 

We have talked about the genesis of such software and its capabilities in extreme detail before. We have also described how a common software platform like this can open up massive new possibilities when it comes to aerial warfare and combat in general:

“Just as UCAVs can evolve over time via open architecture design and more agile construction concepts, so can their human interfaces and operating software. Strictly speaking, although new UCAV designs may change the look of the swarm, its cloud brain (command logic and artiicial intelligence) can continue to evolve linearly. Think of it as buying a new desktop computer but running the same operating system on it that is constantly upgraded.

Some of the most expensive and perilous elements of building a new strike-fighter are software development and “back-end” infrastructure related. The nice thing about UCAVs is that its software and command and control elements can evolve over time and can be applied to multiple unmanned airframes used for a whole array of unique missions. These disparate unmanned systems can also have their capabilities more easily interwoven since they run on a common software and control platform.

As a common software suite evolves, the system’s stability, security, and overall capabilities will only increase. This operating system that controls an autonomous swarm can be tweaked and tailored over years, or even over decades, and it can adapt to new threats, tactics and technologies as a whole without having to adapt a series of discreet control systems for separate aircraft designs.

For instance, the same mission software and command and control interface could possibly be used by a large high-flying stealthy surveillance drone made by one manufacturer, while at the same time also being used for a swarm of UCAVs made by another. In doing so, these systems could work together seamlessly and flexibly even though their missions and even their manufacturers are different.

One scenario may have that high-flying stealthily drone acting as a super-server and communications relay system that will enable and enhance the awareness and interoperability of a swarm of tactical UCAVs fighting below it. In another scenario, that same high-altitude unmanned aircraft may provide many UCAV swarms, say of six UCAVs each, with moving ground targets it sees on radar to attack from hundreds of miles away. Meanwhile, the same software and interface system could direct low-end unmanned supply drones toward Special Forces units deep in enemy territory, with UCAVs being instantly assigned to protect them on their way.

This “sandbox” like approach could give mission planners and strategists both a mission planning system and a command and control suite for a whole slew of unmanned aircraft all in one neat and ever evolving package.

Think of it as a common operating system that can constantly be improved on and used by new and existing hardware alike. Not only is this concept cost effective and developmentally efficient, but it can greatly enhance the combat capability and flexibility of all the hardware it supports. For mission planning purposes and for being able to leverage the super nimble swarm mentality even further by integrating small numbers of dissimilar and specialized force multiplying unmanned aircraft into it, a common software platform and command interface will add to the lethality of the swarm as a whole exponentially.”

Although we were talking about unmanned aircraft command and control and battle management here, the same software would inherently be adaptable and well suited for battle management purposes across the full spectrum of warfare, often referred to as Multi-Domain Command and Control. The software and system would likely provide seamless data fusion from a massive number of external assets, as well as the aircraft’s own onboard sensors, and present that data in a way that is easily to interpret and act upon. Intuitive filtration of data is key here, with the system being able to deliver to the operator the information they request and that is critical for their task, and no more. And once again, it could also provide direct command and control over semi-autonomous unmanned assets working down-range. 

Even Lockheed’s concept art hints a much wider mission set for their JSTARS recap jet than an updated replacement, with battle management software being possibly the most critical part of the entire system., Lockheed Martin

An aircraft with such a potent human interface suite would truly represent the best of both worlds—being able to perform the old E-8C mission individually today, but also being able to bring not only data from but command and control of distributed assets into the picture as the technology evolves. 

Supposedly the USAF is still planning on making a selection on its future JSTARS replacement team by March of 2018, but that could officially change at any moment considering the fact that the Pentagon still doesn’t have a budget and the words from the department’s top executives as to the possibility of going another direction. The current E-8C fleet is scheduled to be flyable through 2023. 

Part of the objective of the JSTARS recap program is to drastically cut the operational and sustainment costs of the system compared to the old 707s that currently make up the JSTARS fleet. Going to a long-range business jet platform or even Boeing’s 737 derivative, will attain this goal. Also greater automation will mean far less manning requirements than what the current E-8C requires. 

Lockheed’s team uses the Bombardier G6000 Global Express as a JSTARS replacement platform. , Lockheed Martin

The Global Express, which Lockheed’s team is proposing as a platform, is already in service with the USAF in the form of the E-11 Battlefield Airborne Connectivity Node. The Gulfstream 550 that Northrop Grumman is offering is far more prevalent in the Pentagon’s inventory, going by the designation C-37. The Navy will also be receiving a highly modified version of the type to satisfy its range control and telemetry mission under the designation NC-37B. Both the G6000 and G550 have high altitude and long-range cruising capabilities. The G550 was also selected recently for the EC-130H Compass Call replacement platform

Northrop Grumman proposes the G550 for their JSTARS replacement aircraft, claiming it will be far more cost effective and well suited size-wise than Boeing’s 737-700 derivative offering., Northrop Grumma

Boeing’s 737-700 based JSTARS replacement aircraft is a larger jet and doesn’t have the high altitude capabilities of its competitors, but it also offers far more room for future growth. The 737 is the most prevalent airliner in the world and the Pentagon flies dozens of the type under the designation C-40 and P-8. Northrop Grumman says Boeing’s option will burn 50% more fuel than their G550 JSTARS aircraft. 

Boeing 737-700 based JSTARS platform is the largest of the bunch but it does offer more room for future capabilities. , Boeing

We’ll have to wait and see if the JSTARS recap program can survive in the near term, or if the USAF will decide to invest in an interim “system of systems” solution to the BMC2 mission set. But what’s most exciting is the fact that just by the USAF even positing this alternative solution, we get another small peak of what has likely been in development, or even in operation in the classified domain. 

Author’s note/update: As we wrote about in a previous story, another option may be to acquire and upgrade the Royal Air Force’s relatively new Sentinel R1s, which are being retired for budgetary reasons, as an interim solution. Doing so would help buy time before executing a full JSTARS recap program. Five young airframes will help bolster the E-8C fleet as it begins to retire its oldest airframes in 2023. Such an acquisition could also be paired with the “distributed strategy” to offset risk.  

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.