The E-8 Joint-STARS ground surveillance radar aircraft has played a key role in every conflict since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but its availability is being cut short by aging engines. Originally, in order to save money, the Defense Department built the E-8s by buying second-hand Boeing 707 aircraft and retrofitting them with the necessary electronics and radar. Today, at least one aircraft out of the 16 plane fleet is constantly grounded due to problems with the original engines. The Air Force would like to replace the engines with newer JT8D engines in service with many airlines around the globe.
New engines would cost $445 million to buy or could be leased for $32 million per year over six years. This would enable the aircraft to continue flying until 2050. Contractors contend that the engines will have to be replaced as maintenance costs continue to go up. Currently, it costs $450,000 to overhaul an engine and that cost is expected to climb to over a million dollars per engine in the next four years. The old engines require frequent overhauls, that are exceeding the cost of leasing new engines. Moreover, the old engines are unable to consistently reach the best altitude for use of the JSTARS radar. They also require more frequent tanker refueling.
Senior Pentagon civilians say re-engining the JSTARS is not an urgent issue despite the obvious cost savings in maintenance and fuel costs. This isnt the first time that a new engine project has been subbed by penny-wise, pound-foolish managers. Several proposals or the past ten years have been floated to re-engine the B-52 fleet with commercial jet power plants to cut down on maintaining old hardware, while getting better performance and fuel economy. It is likely the B-52 will ultimately get new engines due to Air Force plans to fly the planes into 2040 as conventional bombers and electronic warfare platforms. More controversial are proposals re-engining the KC-135 tanker fleet. The Air Force would like to simply replace old tankers with new aircraft, claiming that the airframes are worn out. But budget-minded officials in Congress and the Pentagon think that corrosion studies have been overstated and new engines would keep the existing fleet running until 2040 as well. Doug Mohney