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Air Force Leaders Still Hope for New Engines for E-8C Joint STARS

The Air Force is moving more slowly than it once expected to re-engine its Boeing E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) ground surveillance aircraft.

Air Force chief of staff Gen. Norton Schwartz calls the goal of re-engining “a moving target” and said the future of the fleet is constantly being reviewed.

The 17-plane E-8C fleet, operated by the 116th Control Wing, the blended active-duty/Air National Guard unit at Warner Robins, Ga., was once scheduled for new engines. The plan was to install 21,000-pound static thrust Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 engines as replacements for the aging 19,200-pound thrust Pratt & Whitney TF33-PW-102C turbojets used by existing E-8Cs. The E-8Cs are built around Boeing 707-320B airframes and have no structural or fatigue issues – but have long been considered underpowered. The first upgraded aircraft with the new engines made its initial flight on Dec. 20, 2008. The Air Force has authorization currently to re-engine four more E-8Cs.

Two years ago, officials were describing new engines for the entire inventory as a “done deal.” A plan to re-engine the entire Joint STARS fleet was once scheduled for fiscal year 2010. but did not survive the budgeting process. Schwartz says he wants to “proceed cautiously” before seeking funds for new power for the remaining 13 airframes with the older powerplants.

Deployed to Afghanistan for the first time last year, Joint STARS provides a battlefield management system that can detect, locate, track, and classify adversaries on the ground at long range. Its primary mission, as described by the Air Force, is to provide theater ground and air commanders with ground surveillance to support attack operations and targeting that contributes to the delay, disruption and destruction of enemy forces. A typical E-8C crew includes four on the flight deck and 18 in the mission crew, typically including 15 Air Force and three Army specialists. The E-8C aircraft has a wing span just over 145 feet and an operational weight of 336,000 pounds.

Aircraft no. 90-0175 is the first E-8C Joint STARS equipped with 21,000-lb static thrust Pratt & Whitney JT8D-219 engines. U. S. Air Force photo.

E-8C crewmembers are among the “most deployed” in the Air Force. During fiscal year 2010, they were away from home 79 days.

“There is one issue with this fleet, and that’s the engines,” Northrop Grumman’s Joint STARS program manager David Nagy told the Air Force Association’s Daily Report on November 9. “Engines, and engine-related issues,” are currently driving E-8 sustainment costs, Nagy said, adding that the quicker the Air Force were to complete the program, “the quicker” the service would “begin to accrue the savings” of operating the more reliable, powerful, and fuel-efficient engines.

The Air Force is testing an E-8C with an MS-177 camera, a version of the Syers-3 cameras carried by U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. The camera will resolve issues arising from the need to identify radar targets in time to authorize air-to-ground attacks.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...