How the Air Force is going to replace JSTARS

The Northrop Grumman E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, better known as JSTARS, is a unique United States Air Force aircraft. What the E-3 Sentry does for aerial combat, the JSTARS does for ground warfare, providing all-weather surveillance and critical intelligence to troops in the fight. But the Air Force has now scrapped a planned replacement for the E-8 — what’s up with that?

In the wake of the cancellation of the JSTARS recapitalization program, the Air Force is planning to shift towards modifying both the Sentry as well as unmanned aerial vehicles to provide an interim replacement until a “system of systems” can take over.

Air Force replaces JSTARS

MQ-9 Reapers could receive a new radar to help replace JSTARS capabilities. (USAF photo)

Last year, the Air Force was seeking to replace the E-8 because the airframes that were equipped with the AN/APY-7 radar — the heart of the system, essentially — were second-hand Boeing 707 airliners. At the 2017 AirSpaceCyber, Lockheed’s proposed JSTARS replacement was part of a demonstration for a new mission planning system known as multi-domain command and control or, simply, MDC2. Unfortunately, as the Air Force’s needs have developed, something as large and centralized as the current JSTARS, and its slated replacement, is seen as archaic.

Now, the plan to replace the E-8s, which are slated to retire in the mid-2020s, has found its way back to square one — well, almost. Northrop Grumman’s new Ground Moving Target Indicator radar. Its modular architecture, like that of the AN/SPY-6 Air and Missile Defense Radar, should allow the company to use the technology on other offerings, ensuring that not all of its research and development go to waste.

Air Force replaces JSTARS

RQ-4 Global Hawks could also be equipped with newer Ground Moving Target Indicator radars. (USAF photo)

The Air Force also is planning to upgrade seven of its E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft with new communications gear instead of retiring them. Some MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles could also receive a new radar as well. At the same time, three E-8s that have become hangar queens will be retired.