By Rachel Cohen, Inside Defense, December 12, 2018 at 3:37 PM

The Air Force will consider whether its maintenance crew at Robins Air Force Base, GA, can eventually replace Northrop Grumman as the depot provider for the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.

As Northrop begins its 19th year as the JSTARS fleet’s primary sustainment contractor, blue-suit maintainers are working on the first of three aircraft to come through the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex as part of an organic depot pilot program that began in July.

When the pathfinder ends, the Air Force will look at a range of future maintenance options, including whether to split responsibilities between the service and the contractor or whether Robins AFB can take over the process entirely.

“We are exploring [a formal programmed depot maintenance plan],” Col. David Menke, senior materiel leader for the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance division, told Inside Defense in a Dec. 3 interview. “My responsibility is to do the best I can to maintain or increase aircraft availability. . . . Does it make sense to have both sources of repair or not? That’s kind of predecisional at this point.”

Northrop’s total system support responsibility contracts for the E-8C fleet, which began in 2000 and are expected to last through fiscal year 2022, are worth $7 billion, according to a September Government Accountability Office report. The company announced Nov. 19 it had received its latest yearlong, $330 million TSSR award that started Nov. 1.

For years, the Air Force and Northrop have worked to grow the portion of the 16-aircraft E-8C fleet that is available to fly missions. The contractor improved aircraft availability in FY-18 by a single-digit percentage over FY-17, Menke said.

Service spokesman Ben Newell declined to provide aircraft availability data but said the Air Force hopes to reach a goal of more than 60 percent. The service also asks Northrop to keep no more than three jets in depot at a time.

As of Nov. 28, five aircraft were at Northrop’s Lake Charles, LA, maintenance center. Company spokeswoman Dianne Baumert-Moyik said last month the company planned to deliver two of those back to the Air Force in December, bringing the number of JSTARS in depot to three.

Northrop argues it misses the Air Force’s aircraft availability goals because the high-demand jets need extensive work and because of deferred maintenance that now takes more time to complete. The service has said Northrop lacks disciplined processes. Together, the two are overhauling the inspection process to look at the entire aircraft every six years instead of in four increments over eight years.

“We believe the incumbent contractor has made some slight improvements, but it’s not to the magnitude of what we need to see to materialize in aircraft availability,” Menke said.

In pursuing its own depot work, the Air Force first wants to see if the Warner Robins ALC can maintain platforms faster than the status quo and then find out whether it’s possible to bring multiple aircraft in at the same time. Fifty-five mechanics are assigned to JSTARS at the air logistics complex now.

Menke expects work on the first JSTARS will last about 300 days, less than the 430-day fleet-wide average for heavy maintenance known as “C checks.” Once that aircraft leaves Warner Robins, a second will be brought in, and the third after that.

“They’ll have to spin up more manpower if we want to go to more than one aircraft at a time,” Menke said. “The second will be actually looking at hangar space. . . . At most depot maintenance, you have bottlenecks. Paint capacity is certainly one of those here, so that’s one of the things that we’ll have to figure out as a team between the program office and Warner Robins.”

Instead of requesting more funding for the organic depot effort in FY-20, Menke said the money that would have gone to Northrop would go to Robins AFB. The service hasn’t determined how much it could save by bringing JSTARS maintenance in-house, or how many mechanics Warner Robins might need in the long term.

The Air Force is trying to encourage faster, higher-quality work with financial incentives built into Northrop’s contracts, but issues remain. In one recent incident, Northrop’s depot crossed the hydraulic fluid and fuel lines, putting the wrong liquid into the gas tank.

“A configuration issue was identified and corrected quickly,” Baumert-Moyik said in a Dec. 7 email. “It did not impact aircraft delivery. We worked closely with the USAF to clarify maintenance procedures for this specific configuration across the fleet so correct service can be performed no matter where the aircraft are being maintained.”

In the meantime, Northrop is also moving ahead on several upgrades to the legacy fleet as the Air Force solidifies its plan for an Advanced Battle Management System, including improvements to the central computers and a radio terminal replacement program.

“The E-8Cs continue to serve as a low-risk pathfinder for the U.S. Air Force through continued fleet capability enhancements while the Air Force develops the follow-on Advanced Battle Management System,” Jane Bishop, Northrop’s vice president for military aircraft surveillance programs, said in a Nov. 19 release.

The Air Force wants to fly JSTARS into the late 2020s before ABMS reaches initial operational capability in the mid-2030s.

Menke said the “JSTARS 2030 road map,” a plan to lay out upgrade priorities to keep the platform relevant until it’s replaced, is still predecisional. It is divided into five categories: propulsion, avionics, communications, test support and radar modernization.

“The work on those would be starting now,” he said. “We would have to field those in the next five to 10-year period. . . . We’re still going through the process of how we prioritize the tasks within those five bins I described.”

Col. Scott McClain, the Air Force’s JSTARS branch chief, added during the Dec. 3 interview some money was identified for those initiatives in FY-19, and that the service could publish a request for proposals for certain capabilities by the end of September.