Aging aircraft get IT upgrades

Boeing awarded multibillion-dollar contracts

The Air Force is spending billions of dollars to modernize information technology systems on two of its workhorse aircraft in an effort to keep the planes in the air longer than originally planned.

To perform the work, the Boeing Co. was awarded two contracts worth a total of $11 billion, if all options are exercised. The company will receive up to $7 billion from the Electronic Systems Center, Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., to modernize the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) fleet and up to $4 billion from the Aeronautical Systems Center at Wright- Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, to upgrade the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. The AWACS contract was announced May 31; the C-130 contract, June 4.

The AWACS aircraft provide all-weather surveillance, command, control and communications for commanders of U.S., NATO and other allied air defense forces. The C-130 performs tactical airlift missions. The aircraft can operate from dirt air.strips and are used as the prime transport for airdropping troops and equipment into hostile areas.

Neither modernization effort is surprising because both aircraft have been in service for decades, said Bill Dane, senior aviation analyst at Forecast International/DMS Inc., Newtown, Conn.

"Boeing is making some headway in the [aircraft modernization] business," Dane said. "They've built up a lot of expertise in the systems-upgrade market and are flexing their muscles to become a major player in that segment." He added that the C-130 win might place Boeing in a competitive position when the Air Force eventually replaces the aircraft. Boeing builds the AWACS; Lockheed Martin Corp. builds the C-130.

The C-130 modernization effort, known as the C-130 Avionics Modernization Program, will require Boeing to develop a modern, common cockpit avionics system for approximately 500 aircraft. The new avionics system will feature six digital displays and the flight-management system currently used on the 737 commercial airliner.

"The C-130 [modernization program] represents a major milestone in the convergence of military and civil avionics technology," said David Spong, president of Boeing Military Aerospace Support, in a written statement. The potentially 18-year deal to modernize AWACS is the first major IT overhaul of the E-3 aircraft. The program is called AMASS—for AWACS Modernization and Sustainment Support—and is designed to provide "cradle-to-grave" system management, Air Force officials said.

AMASS will improve several capabilities, including satellite and radio communications, and a high- frequency messaging system for text messages, such as secure updates to air tasking orders. It will also improve the plane's avionics suite and navigation and traffic management capabilities, among other things.

AMASS is the consolidation of three previously separate efforts to modernize the 24-year-old planes and keep them in the air at least another 10 years. The consolidation leaves more time to "get things done" while spending less time on contract negotiations and planning, said Col. Chuck Turbe, chief of the AWACS Systems Division at Hanscom.

The three modernization efforts that were combined were being performed individually by Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman Corp. Under AMASS, the three companies will continue to perform AWACS upgrades, with Boeing as the primary contractor.

AMASS "will be a more efficient and cost-effective way to manage the program. That's what it's all about," said David Sloane, manager of space and communications at Boeing.


The plane facts

E-3 Sentry AWACS

The E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft is characterized

by a rotating 30-foot-diameter radar dome held 14 feet above the fuselage

by two struts. It is used to detect, identify and track enemy

aircraft and to direct allied aircraft to airborne targets.

* Crew: Flight crew of four plus mission crew of 13 to 19 specialists.

* Date deployed: March 1977.

* Inventory: 33.

C-130 Hercules

The versatile, turboprop C-130 has been used for decades by the United States

and more than 60 other countries. It can carry 92 troops, 64 fully equipped

paratroops or 45,000 pounds of cargo.

* Crew: Five.

* Date deployed: April 1955.

* Inventory: 500.

Source: Air Force, Boeing Co.


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