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Boeing’s Super-Sized Manned “UAV”

by John Reed on September 28, 2011

Ok, so it’s not remotely a UAV, but Boeing’s proposed replacement for the 707-based E-8 Joint STARS radar jets would do an awful lot of what we’ve come to associate with drones — spying-on and killing bad guys.

As you may know, Boeing is pitching a new ground-scanning radar jet called P-8 Airborne Ground Surveillance based on the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon subhunter. If the plane is ever built and lives up to Boeing’s promises it will be able to scan giant swaths of the battlefield using a powerful APY-7 radar to find moving vehicles and take synthetic aperture pictures of the Earth. It will also be able to use high-resolution electro-optical/infrared cameras to zoom in on specific targets. Meanwhile, analysts in the back of the plane can pour over the data collected by its sensors or info from ground centers and possibly those of nearby UAVs — in real time. It can also feed intelligence back to an intelligence center or cue UAVs or fighters to attack bad guys. If a target needed to be hit immediately, P-8 AGS could drop a prescison-guided bomb from its internal weapons bay or one of four wing hardpoints that are wired to carry munitions. This is pretty close to “a single platform kill chain” — Boeing’s ad slogan for the plane.

Now, whether or not all this capability is needed in one large airplane is up for debate. (Technically, an F-16 equipped with a targeting pod can do a lot of what we talked about above.) And remember, a plane like this wouldn’t be very safe loitering close to a ground fight in a war where U.S. air dominance wasn’t absolute. Still, this concept fits the Pentagon’s notion that all “sensors need to be shooters and all shooters need to be sensors.”

(Watch Boeing’s concept video for P-8 AGS at the end of this piece.)

The Air Force is wrapping up a study on possible replacements for the aging E-8 JSTARS’ in the ground scanning mission. That study is looking at everything from using big jets — like the E-8 or P-8 — to small business jets like the RAF’s Sentinel R1 as well as drones or blimps.

Keep in mind that the Air Force is still working on replacing the E-8’s ancient JT3C engines with a newly-made JT8D engines (though the JT8D was first built in the early 1960s and will go out of production soon).  That effort is still in the test phase and its future is still unknown.

(Also remember that investment in ISR tech is one of the areas that senior Air Force leaders said that they will fight to protect from budget cuts in the coming years.)

Here’s Boeing’s promo video for the P-8 AGS:

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

brian September 28, 2011 at 11:59 am

Makes perfect sense. You don't want to take up all the bandwidth to transmit all that data to the ground so you have people on board to actually filter it. I guess manned flight isn't going away after all.

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blight2 September 28, 2011 at 6:12 pm

Alternatively, we replace the satellite->ground station node with an aircraft that can coordinate multiple UAVs close by without going to satellite uplinks. Said aircraft would be ridiculously expensive, as they would require the communications gear to uplink to multiple UAVs, the processing systems to coordinate them and the command authority aboard to launch attacks going to satellites, which may be destroyed or unavailable due to other bandwidth demands.

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brian September 28, 2011 at 7:17 pm

Doubt it would be worth the expense, and you would need omni directional arrays subject to jamming and the other point, you would creating another point of failure.

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blight2 September 29, 2011 at 8:16 am

"analysts in the back of the plane can pour over the data collected by its sensors or info from ground centers and possibly those of nearby UAVs — in real time. It can also feed intelligence back to an intelligence center"

Which suggests it already is acting as a node, between UAVs and back to the intelligence center, since those analysts might not have command authority to engage certain types of targets.

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Brian September 29, 2011 at 12:34 am

I wonder if using ai would make sense instead of people. Then you wouldnt need to send so much data, only what was relevant

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blight September 30, 2011 at 11:50 am

You still need a decision loop between people and the AI. Unless you want to cut that link entirely.

You could put up Air Force officers with decision-making authority to attack particular targets, in which case the Manned Air Vehicle is a flying command post with UAV datalinks and ISR capability.

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jamesb September 28, 2011 at 1:20 pm

Boeing is getting desperate….

After losing their shirts to Airbus they are dreaming…..

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Sundog September 28, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Weird, It seems they ate Airbus' lunch with the 787. You know, the most successful airliner, based on sales so far, in the history of commercial airliners for numbers of aircraft sold before it even enters production. Oh wait, that's a fact, you probably weren't interested in something like that. Beliefs are so much easier…

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blight September 28, 2011 at 2:10 pm

And heavy delays in delivery due to outsourcing, with deliveries beginning in the middle of a recession. I'm not sure how many customers can still afford to take delivery at this point, and we don't even know for sure if all the Dreamliners promises will pan out. It may be nice in the short term if everyone takes delivery, but if it's found to be a long run hassle it may damage the company's position.

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jamesb September 28, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Any vast new program is not gonna get off the ground anytime soon….

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Lance September 28, 2011 at 3:01 pm

Too bad budget cuts might kill this plane for now too.

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John September 29, 2011 at 7:31 am

Nuke em all, then start over.

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Harry Canyon September 29, 2011 at 8:06 am

Why would you spend all that money on a new platform when you can just upgrade the engines on the existing Joint STARS for billions less??

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blight2 September 29, 2011 at 8:14 am

Old platforms were built when Kruschev was still alive and kicking and the Cold War was young.

Do you drive a car that old? Are there tanks in the army that old? Do airlines still have the original 707s that it was based on? The military is the last user of the 707, and in the absence of active production lines means the military is buying old 707s, taking them to the Boneyard and cannibalizing them for parts. Eventually those parts run out, and opening a production line for ancient aircraft is going to hurt fiscally as well.

They're not going to develop a new platform. They'll just take another Boeing platform and move the electronics to it, and then spend jillions of dollars on systems integration.

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GunnyJames October 28, 2011 at 12:42 pm

Cuz Boeing doesn't make the "new" engines."

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Flyjinx March 29, 2012 at 9:57 am

The engines aren't the only thing in desperate need of upgrade. Most of the radar components arent made anymore. The flight deck is outdated and not incompliance with many international aviation standards. Much more needs to be done. Either way, platform upgrade or platform replacement is going to cost a crap-ton of money.

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itfunk September 29, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Boeing just has another obsolete production line it needs propped up. Hence the whole idea.

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blight2 September 30, 2011 at 12:27 am

If it were about obsolete lines, Boeing would have lobbied to keep the 707 line open exclusively for JSTARS.

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Rajarata September 29, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Awesome Video !

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Lightndattic September 30, 2011 at 10:55 am

Solution: Tell Boeing to put it’s own money where it’s mouth is. Build a working P-8 AGS demonstrator out of it’s own funds. Demonstrate the working product to the military in a comparison to the one already re-engined E-8 and let’s see the advantages. If they are significant, then the USAF should buy it, otherwise re-engine the E-8′s and keep flying them.

What this whole thing boils down to is Boeing wants the DOD to fund product development for something it can sell on the open market at a greater profit. Australia paid for the development of the Wedgetail AEWC aircraft and Turkey and S Korea got to buy a finished product without the risk of additional developmental costs. The DOD has consistently done this and it’s time to stop it. If the Defense Industry wants to sell it’s products going froward, let them sell a finished product.

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M167A1 September 30, 2011 at 11:45 am

Don't be silly.

The systems and airframe are mostly developed. This is Boeing's way of saying "look what we can do." If the AF wants it they will have to pay the way.

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bikerthai October 4, 2011 at 10:28 am

Boeing is not building this from scratch and they are not putting in their own money. They are leveraging the P-8A. The navy will have this capability with the Raytheon mod to the P-8A. Most of the development can be port over to this program.

Considering the engines are about 1/4 the cost of the aiplane, how much 4 engines that are out of production would cost vs. 2 engines that are being pumped out at 2+ a day. There is good reason to look at the Boeing proposal. Don't dismiss it out out hand.

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blight October 4, 2011 at 1:04 pm

It would be a convincing win-win to reduce the number of platforms going about in inventory. We talk the "common airframe" talk, but all it takes is looking at the numbers of different aircraft of varying missions on different airframes from several generations of procurement puttering about.

It almost makes you think that procurement is slanted towards combat platforms, while paying lip service to the importance of supporting aircraft by buying old 707s for boneyard cannibalization and talking up the importance of legacy platforms.

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Mark October 28, 2011 at 5:11 pm

Why are we putting essentially antique JT8D engines in this aircraft or any aircraft. Modern airframes and modern engines. The militiary is the largest user of fuel on the planet. Why cant we use some more modern fuel efficient, equally reliable, more powerful engines? Does anybody know this? The aircraft sounds wondeful with the addition of the MAD stinger.

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Requirements Creep October 31, 2011 at 9:16 am

Has JSTARS ever contributed *anything* on a battlefield? Seems like a flying pig. It didn’t contribute anything worth it’s cost 20yr ago. Is it really any better now? Would love to hear some war stories.

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lypeginny January 16, 2012 at 12:32 pm
moose September 28, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Did you read the article at all? The "manned UAV" thing was a crack DT crack, Boeing's pitching P-8 AGS to replace the manned E-8 JSTARS,

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PMI September 28, 2011 at 5:55 pm

A large manned ISR platform is far more capable than anything we’ll see near term from the UAV fleet. They (unmanned platforms) certainly have their place but they aren’t close to replacing the E-8, RC-135, P-3/8 or E-3 birds.

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blight2 September 30, 2011 at 12:28 am

I don't think the new manufacturing bit was as ruinous as the massive decentralized outsourcing, but only Boeing knows the truth.

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M167A1 September 30, 2011 at 11:42 am

Both caused problems but managing all the suppliers was the largest single problem. Now that they have that more or less under control I hope they can solve their union problem. Its their secon limiting factor.

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