Northrop’s slow repairs prompt Air Force to try in-house work

Northrop is taking an average of 400 days per aircraft to repair or refurbish 16 “Jstars” jets.

By Tony Capaccio / Bloomberg

The Air Force, impatient with Northrop Grumman’s delays repairing the U.S.’s top ground surveillance aircraft, is testing whether to move more work in-house, starting with refurbishing a single jet this year.

Northrop is taking an average of 400 days per aircraft to repair or refurbish the inventory of 16 “Jstars” surveillance jets first deployed in 1991, and “we would like to bring that number down” to make more aircraft available, Air Force spokesman Derek Kaufman said in an email.

“We’ve been focusing intensely for a couple of years on improving contractor-led depot performance, but aircraft are still remaining in depot too long,” Steven Wert, the Air Force’s program executive officer for battle management, said in this month in announcing the new push. “We believe this option is well worth exploring.”

Jstars or Joint Stars — short for the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System — is a Boeing 707-300 airframe that Northrop equipped with radar, sensors and moving-target indicators. The 16 planes have been used since the 1991 Gulf War to monitor enemy ground movements and pass along locations for airstrikes and intelligence. The aircraft more recently flew over Iraq monitoring Islamic State terrorist positions.

In July, the Air Force will deliver a Jstars plane to the Warner Robins Air Logistics Complex at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia for in-house depot maintenance in what it calls a “proof of concept.”

The maintenance issues are separate from the service’s effort — over congressional resistance — to retire the planes after 2023 and replace them with an alternate system of aerial sensors networked together that’s still to be defined. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson reiterated the case for replacement in remarks Tuesday at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“Northrop Grumman remains steadfast in its commitment to quality and safety to ensure the high demand Joint Stars fleet is mission-ready for America’s warfighters,” Vic Beck, a company spokesman, said in an email when asked to comment on the Ar Force’s new initiative.

Northrop is performing maintenance on the aircraft at its Lake Charles, Louisiana, facility under a $7 billion “total system support contract” awarded in September 2000 that had a six-year base with 16 annual options running through 2022. The contractor was paid about $1.1 billion from May 2011 to October 2015 for work on the surveillance planes, according to the Pentagon’s inspector general, who issued a critical report in November 2016 on the Air Force’s management of the contract.

“The contractor is in compliance with terms of the contract, but despite incentives, we’re not seeing the depot throughput we’d like,” Kaufman said. Still, the proposed depot work at Robins “would supplement, not supplant, the work being done at Lake Charles,” the service said in a news release. “In fact, the Air Force will need Northrop’s help to successfully execute this proof of concept.”

Kaufman said the service has worked closely with Northrop to improve quality after earlier lapses and has seen “real progress.”

Poor quality was found on six of seven of the contractor’s aircraft that were inspected after an Air Force review in 2016 raised questions about Northrop procedures. The service initiated the review after $7.3 million in water damage to an aircraft radar was discovered in July 2016 on a plane that had just been returned from Lake Charles.

The Air Force concluded Northrop personnel were responsible. Almost two years later “the government is still working with the legal office and Northrop Grumman to determine an equitable solution,” Kaufman said. Beck of Northrop declined to comment on the status of that dispute.

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