Northrop Grumman recently fit the E-8C Joint STARS testbed aircraft with the MS 177 long-range multi-spectral sensor that is already resident on Air Force U-2 surveillance platforms. This imaging sensor augments the E-8C’s radar, giving Joint STARS aircrews the ability to identify targets to aid ground commanders in making decisions in real time, said Dave Nagy, who oversees business development for Northrop’s battle management and engagement systems. “Today, Joint STARS covers a broad area,” explained Nagy in an interview. Since the radar looks “at literally tens of thousands of square miles,” it picks up “lots of moving objects. If you want to go take a look at something, you need to go fly in . . . a Predator, Reaper, or even a Global Hawk, and that can take time,” he said. Tucked into a ventral pod slung beneath the testbed, the MS 177 allows for rapid and independent target identification. So far, Congress has added funding to defense bills to cover the sensor’s integration on Joint STARS, but the Air Force has yet to equip its operational E-8Cs with the sensor.
The Air Force overall reduced its size by 120 aircraft in fiscal year 2021, but kept about the same number of fighter, bomber and attack aircraft, according to data supplied by the service. The F-35 fleet saw the biggest increase while the B-1B bomber fleet saw the largest decline.