Boeing Offers 737 to Recap JSTARS, ISR Fleet

Boeing has shifted from the 767 to the 737 as its preferred offering to replace a variety of Air Force intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, according to Fred Smith, Boeing director of marketing for Mobility, Surveillance, and Engagement.

He told reporters on a company-sponsored defense division visit Sept. 12-13 that Boeing’s success in adapting the 737 as the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane and the airborne early warning E-7 “Wedgetail” has convinced the company that the aircraft would be the smart platform on which to base replacements for other 707/C-135-derived platforms. These include the E-8 JSTARS and what Smith called the “boutique fleet” of RC-/OC-/WC-135s, as well as the EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft and, potentially, the E-3 AWACS.

Though other proposers for the JSTARS are leaning toward “luxury business jets,” Smith said the 737-700 Next Generation is “the right aircraft” for the mission because it will offer substantial growth capacity for more equipment, more power and cooling, more operators, and more missions, as well as crew amenities the other aircraft won’t be able to offer.

Boeing began touting the 767 as the heir apparent to the C-135 fleet in the 1990s, intending to militarize the 767 for the tanker mission and adapt the resulting airframe to other applications. However, the 737 is so ubiquitous—with more than 7,000 in service of all variants, worldwide—that its global maintenance and parts footprint mean the Air Force could take its ISR fleet virtually anywhere and find support available, Smith said.

The jet has a 30-plus year service life and “about a 99 percent availability rate,” Smith said. For the JSTARS contest—an RFP for which is expected imminently—Smith said Boeing’s entrant would feature Technology Readiness Levels of six or better, and bests other entrants by 25-40 percent in growth margin and 50 percent in mission endurance.

Boeing could easily accommodate Air Force airframe needs as the company is building 737s at a rate of 47 a month now and will step up to 57 a month by 2019.

Smith said the 767 could still be in the mix if the Air Force wanted to restart something like its abandoned E-10 program, which was a planned combo of JSTARS, AWACS, and command and control, and the 767 would also be better suited to replacing the E-4 command post because the mission requires greater size.