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Boeing: Retire E-8s ASAP and buy P-8s

Boeing has begun pitching the idea of the Air Force gradually retiring its fleet of 707-based E-8 Joint STARS ground scanning radar planes beginning in 2013 and using money saved from that move to replace them with a plane based on the Navy's P-8 subhunters.

"Obviously there are opportunities for the Air Force to stand down some number of E-8s, maintain GMTI capability and  use that money to then offset a recapitalization program," said Jim Eisenhart, Boeing's senior business development manager for Air Force programs, during a Sept. 20 breakfast with reporters at the Air Force Association's annual conference in National Harbor, Md. "So what this drives you to is, instead of having reeingined 50 year old jets in 2020, you have a brand new fleet of more capable, more reliable aircraft operating in 2020."

Eisenhart claims that retiring E-8s and moving to the P-8 with its improved systems and more efficient engineswould generate half a billion dollars in savings per-year by 2019.

"You would stand down somewhere between five and seven E-8s and then begin using that [operations and sustainment] cost savings to [buy] the new jets and since the P-8 is already in production today and you're buying a non-developmental item, it would be an extension of the Navy contract," said Eisenhart.

"If you think about what all we're gonna try to buy in 2020, a half a billion dollars goes a long way towards helping solve where you're going to come up with that kind of procurement money," he added.

Now, we've known for more than a year that Boeing has been hoping to someday pitch the P-8 equipped with a ground scanning radar to the Air Force as a replacement for the service's aging JSTARS. However, according to Eisenhart, the service's acting acquisition chief, David Van Buren approached the company during the Paris Air Show in June, 2009 to "informally" ask what ideas Boeing had in regards to replacing the E-8.

It was revealed a few months later that the Air Force would conduct an analysis of alternatives (AoA) for the JSTARS Ground Moving Target Indicator mission. That AoA kicked off last January and has the service looking at  replacing the JSTARS with everything from another big jet such as the P-8 to small business jets like the RAF's fleet of Sentinel R1s or even UAVs and blimps. The service is expected to publish the results of the AoA this fall.

The Boeing executive quoted the Air Force's fleet viability board study that it costs roughly, $60 million a year to operate an E-8. He went a step further to claim that the E-8 fleet costs $10.7 billion including "fully burdened cost of fuel" to fly, as is.

The service could begin retiring six to seven planes a year beginning in 2013 and Boeing could begin building P-8s for the Air Force in 2015 and have all 17 JSTARS replaced with P-8s by 2019. These planes would be tacked onto the Navy's P-8 buy of 117 aircraft.

"By combining the order quantities you now create an economy of scale which is going to reduce production cost because you get supplier stability, you get orders of magnitude greater quantities and so in the long-run it will serve DoD's and the taxpayers best interest because it will lower the per-unit cost," argued Eisenhart.

Meanwhile, support for the effort to replacing the 40-year old E-8's JT3D engines (designed in the 1950s for the 707 and B-52) with the newer Pratt & Whitney JT8D (designed in the early 1960s for the 727 and DC-9) has been up and down over the past few years due to questions about the cost of the effort. But last year, the Air Force gave Northrop Grumman a $223 million contract to install four new JT8Ds on a JSTARS airframe and another $60 million for "flight testing, data capture for flight simulators, modified air certification, pneumatic system development, training, logistics, flight manuals and logistics design efforts," according to the service. However, Pratt will soon stop making the JT8D meaning that the air force will face a diminishing base of spare parts for the engines in the coming decades -- something that can lead to new costs and challenges.

Northrop executives argued last February that they could reengine the JSTARS and equip it with new avionics for under $3 billion:

From Inside the Air Force:

Installing new engines, avionics and self-defense equipment would cost the service less than $3 billion, according to Dave Nagy, a Northrop business development official who oversees the E-8C program. The new engines and modifications to existing power generators would give the aircraft more thrust so it can climb faster and cruise more efficiently and the avionics upgrades make the aircraft compliant with international overflight regulations. The self defense systems make the aircraft more survivable....

Despite their age, Nagy maintains the aircraft are structurally sound and have about "50-plus years of useful longevity left. This fleet is a new fleet by way of the production of these platforms and by [no] means is it a fleet that is about ready to move into the sunset," he said.

The E-8C aircraft go through depot maintenance every 18 months. Currently, engine repairs consume a majority of maintenance down time. While the structure of the aircraft has an "infinite life" and had not displayed aging issues seen on other similar planes, the current engines have an economic life, according to Nagy.

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