Magazine article National Defense

Air Force to Run Wars from Sensor-Packed Jets: As the MC2A Aircraft Program Moves along, Air Force Keeps Options Open

Magazine article National Defense

Air Force to Run Wars from Sensor-Packed Jets: As the MC2A Aircraft Program Moves along, Air Force Keeps Options Open

Article excerpt

A multibilion-dollar program to develop an airborne command-and control hub is likely to challenge the Air Force's ability to manage what is, by all accounts, one of the most technically complex military platforms ever built.

A brainchild of the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. John Jumper, the multi-sensor command and control aircraft is not only intended to replace the current fleet of surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, but it also could become a flying command post of sorts, allowing the United States to plan and execute air wars on short notice, and making the Air Force less dependent on ground-based air operations centers.

After Jumper unveiled the MC2A concept more than two years ago, a great deal of confusion ensued, primarily about what exactly MC2A was supposed to accomplish and whether the Air Force was prepared to spend the tens of billions of dollars it would cost to replace the entire fleet of 33 AWACS early-warning planes, 17 Joint STARS ground-surveillance platforms and 14 Rivet Joint signals-intelligence aircraft.

The thinking on MC2A has evolved considerably since 2001, according to sources close to the program. It is no longer viewed as an effort to replace existing aircraft, but rather as an opportunity for the Air Force to push the boundaries of current sensor and battle-management technologies.

Initially, Jumper's idea was to try to consolidate the AWACS, Joint STARS and Rivet Joint functions into one Boeing 767 platform. That is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future, said experts, although it is conceivable that, depending on how quickly technology matures, the ground-surveillance and the airborne early-warning functions could be combined into a single aircraft.

For now, the Air Force plans to only fund a ground-surveillance version of the MC2A, called Spiral 1. An industry team--made up of Northrop Grumman Corp., Boeing Co. and Raytheon Co.--is under contract to build five aircraft by 2013, to be named E-10A.

Early next year, the Air Force will select a contractor team for the battle management command and control systems in the E-10A. Three teams are competing--one led by Northrop Grumman, another by Boeing and. General Dynamics, and a third team that includes Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and SAIC.

The 10-year program to field five E-10As will cost about $5 billion.

The Spiral 1 of MC2A essentially is a more cutting-edge version of Joint STARS. It will have the so-called Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion, a GMTI (ground moving target indicator) sensor capable of tracking ground targets and low-flying cruise missiles. It electronically scans the target area without any refresh delays, effectively acting like an eye that never blinks.

"A lot of the mission in the E-10A is exactly the same as Joint STARS," said Chris Hernandex, Northrop Grumman's vice president for Air Force surveillance programs. "The basic airborne ground surveillance for Spiral 1 is almost exactly the way it is on JSTARS today. ... You have to track moving targets, rag them, ID them and watch them."

Northrop Grumman, which makes the Joint STARS, is the prime contractor for the E-10A. "A lot of the engineering talent from Joint STARS is going to roll right into MC2A," Hernandez said in an interview. "As we come down off the production of Joint Stars, we'll be ramping up for E-10A."

The only new mission added to the E-10A is cruise missile defense.

An MC2A equipped with the MP-RTIP sensor would give the United States a capability to defend ground troops from cruise missile attacks.

"Today, we can do air, ground surveillance and passive signals intelligence. But what we can't do is cruise missile defense," said an industry expert. "We don't have anything that gives theater-wide coverage."

If MC2A had been available during the recent war in Iraq, two aircraft could have provided coverage over the entire country, this expert said. …

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