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Military contractors hope to help build a better J-STARS plane

An E-8C aircraft, part of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System at 116th Air Control Wing, Robins Air Force Base, Ga., pulls away after refueling from a KC-135 Stratotanker with the 459th Air Refueling Wing, Joint Base Andrews, Md., on May 1, 2012. The J-STARS provides ground and air commanders with ground surveillance to support attack operations and targeting.

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. — Representatives from dozens of military contractors tromped their way through an E-8 J-STARS airplane Monday, hoping to learn more about how they could help build the next generation of radar surveillance aircraft.

Col. Henry Cyr, whose 461st Air Control Wing helps run and fly the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, said the airplanes are old, making them costly to fix and fly.

“This airplane was built in the middle to late ‘60s,” Cyr said, referring to the airplane behind him that started life as a Boeing 707. “We’ve got people working on it who were born in the ‘90s.”

Monday’s Air Force Industry Day was intended to bring the military contractors into one of the aircraft.

Bruce Trask, president of Warner Robins-based Tricore Management LLC, said his company’s been working with J-STARS at least 12 years. A new airplane could be cheaper to operate and still offer improvements, and Monday’s event helps get the troops talking to the contractors about the best way to move forward.

“We can do some technological leaps today we couldn’t do a few years ago,” said Trask, whose company works primarily in electronics and avionics.

Col. Kevin Clotfelter, commander of the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing, said more than 30 industry partners were invited to see how their technologies and experience could mesh with the next generation of J-STARS. The current airplanes were built with Northrop Grumman Corp. as the sole contractor, but other companies could participate in building the new airplane, perhaps as consortiums.

The companies represented Monday sell airplanes themselves, as well as offer services such as integrating radar and communication systems. The J-STARS planes have offered more than 100,000 hours in support of combat commands since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Clotfelter said.

The U.S. Air Force plans to cut the fleet from 16 planes to 11 beginning in October 2016, saving money to go toward planning and buying the new airplanes.

About 2,400 people in the military support J-STARS at Robins Air Force Base, mostly active-duty airmen, Georgia Air National Guardsmen and active-duty U.S. Army soldiers, said Master Sgt. Roger Parsons, a spokesman for the 116th Air Control Wing.

Cyr described the J-STARS as a “highly advanced mission system,” then added, “but that old airplane needs to be replaced.”

He said replacement aircraft could be based on platforms by Gulfstream or Bombardier, or the Boeing 737. The first airplane could show up by 2018 or 2019, but more time will be needed to smooth out the operations and train people to operate and maintain the aircraft, Cyr said.

The U.S. Air Force would decide where to base any new airplane.

“Clearly, Robins would have to be the odds-on favorite” with its expertise and history of support, Cyr said.

Monday’s tour was of an airplane rebuilt into a J-STARS platform in 1997, with a 24-foot-long canoe-shaped radar antenna slung low underneath. Parts of its four engines were darkened with soot. Reporters allowed partially into the airplane saw beige storage compartments and fire walls. A dead spider hung from a small web on the ceiling near the forward door, not far from a ceiling screw that had backed partway out.

As reporters were escorted off the base, a different J-STARS airplane was landing, dark exhaust trailing behind it.

©2014 The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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