Boeing’s Super-Sized Manned “UAV”

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:

  • brian

    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.

  • jamesb

    Boeing is getting desperate….

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

    • Sundog

      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…

      • blight

        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.

  • jamesb

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

  • Lance

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

  • John

    Nuke em all, then start over.

  • Harry Canyon

    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??

    • GunnyJames

      Cuz Boeing doesn’t make the “new” engines.”

    • Flyjinx

      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.

  • itfunk

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

  • Rajarata

    Awesome Video !

  • Lightndattic

    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.

    • M167A1

      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.

  • bikerthai

    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.

    • blight

      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.

  • Mark

    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.

  • Requirements Creep

    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.