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A Gulfstream G550 is the platform for Singapore's airborne early warning aircraft. Prime contractor Israel Aircraft industries, with Elta Electronics, built the mission systems for the aircraft, with the nomenclature W-2085. The company thinks its small business class jets are the right fit for several USAF special missions. Gulfstream photo. 

—John A. Tirpak

Savannah, Ga.—Gulfstream wants skeptics to shed their notions of business jets as too small, slow, or underpowered to serve as the platforms for a variety of special missions the Air Force must recapitalize in the coming years. The company believes jets in the class of its 550 and 650 VIP transports—already serving in a variety of militarized roles—are “right sized” to take over missions such as JSTARS, electronic warfare, and AWACS.

The company—which is a division of General Dynamics—flew a number of defense journalists from Washington, D.C., to its facility here in Georgia aboard one of its 650ER jets on July 13 to showcase the aircraft’s space, headroom, and amenities, and to tour both the commercial jet factory and its facility for converting those jets to military missions. Gulfstream is teamed with Northrop Grumman and L3 for the JSTARS competition.  

“We can go higher, faster, farther, better, and less expensively” than a “small airliner,” said Troy Miller, company regional vice president for military sales and marketing.

Gulfstream never mentioned Boeing specifically, but that company’s 737-derived P-8 is fulfilling the Navy’s maritime patrol mission and another variant—which Boeing describes as a large business jet—is being offered as a JSTARS platform. Lockheed Martin has teamed with Bombardier, using that company’s Global 6000 business jet, as the platform for its JSTARS offering.

Small airliners are touted as offering greater room to work, more amenities such as a larger galley and lavatory, greater power, room for sleeping cots, and “growth capability” for more missions and workstations, Miller said. But “all that means is that you’re carrying around extra weight and capacity … that is not needed for the mission” as it exists today, Miller argued, adding “too big is too big.”

He said that Moore’s Law—which posits that, over time, processing hardware will decrease in size and weight while increasing in speed—means the additional space won’t be needed because future iterations of the sensor and computing hardware will likely be smaller, more compact, and weigh less, much as “we go from a desktop … to a tablet … to a watch” with the same or more computing power. The transmit and receive modules on a modern radar are far smaller than just a generation ago, he noted.

Technology has also obviated the need for as much flight crew, such as navigators, and that trend will probably continue, as USAF invests in more automation, Miller said, so the crew won’t need to increase in size over time. All that said, Northrop has said there’s still 10 percent growth margin in the Gulfstream 550-based JSTARS. The JSTARS requirement is for 10 operator stations, and the G550 can carry 12.  

The G550 is not especially small, at about 80 percent of the size of a 737-700, and with a max gross takeoff weight of 91,000 pounds. Still, Miller said its performance, size, and weight mean it can operate at far more airfields than an airliner-sized aircraft. The type is in service with “many” countries as VIP or head-of-state transports, Miller noted.

Because missions such as JSTARS and electronic warfare are “line of sight” oriented, an aircraft that can go higher has a greater area of regard, and can better see beyond high mountainous terrain, Miller said. Typically airliners have a ceiling of 40,000 feet or so, while Gulfstream’s own business jets can cruise above 50,000 feet. This in turn increases the “standoff distance” of the platform, either allowing it to see more deeply into enemy territory or keep further back from air defenses. Moreover, because they are lighter and faster, business jets can expedite the trip to get to altitude and start doing the mission more quickly than a bigger airplane, he argued. The G550 can get to 40,000 feet “in 25 minutes or less.” Speed also means that the jet is “more survivable” because it can escape the operating area faster if it is threatened, he said.

Ben Debry, senior manager for technical marketing, pointed out that the G550’s wings are “clean” on the bottom, having no bumps or protrusions for actuators. This also helps with an under-fuselage radar, such as would be used on JSTARS, which would have to aim its beam around the obstacles on most other aircraft.   

While Gulfstream did not directly compare the performance of its aircraft to Boeing’s, Northrop Grumman has said that the Gulfstream 550, which is the platform for its JSTARS offering, has half the fuel burn of the Boeing 737-700. Miller said a generic G550 costs $9 per nautical mile to fly, while a generic small airliner costs $15 per nautical mile. He also said business jets require “about half” as many maintenance hours per flight hour, at about 1.55 for a G550 versus 3.9 hours for a small airliner.  

Miller noted that the range—at 6,750 miles—and loiter capacity of the G550 is well in excess of USAF’s JSTARS requirements, but that the company will install air refueling equipment in the jet because the service decided to require that capability. Though company artwork shows a refueling receptacle on the nose, “that’s not necessarily where it will go,” Miller said, noting that no decision has been made and it might be placed on the “crown,” or just above and aft of the cockpit.

Either way, the G550’s inherent range would mean “fewer stops” on a deployment, and “reduced need for air refueling,” versus the existing fleet or an airliner-derived aircraft, Miller asserted.

The G550 also offers hidden amenities, such as a much quieter cabin, far lower-altitude cabin pressure, and rapid replacement—not recycling—of cabin air, meaning flight crew “can be more productive, and feel less exhausted” during a mission, Miller noted. Cabin pressure of 4,000 feet is also a selling point if the aircraft is used in a medevac role, making an easier ride for critically injured patients, he noted. A number of Gulfstream’s foreign air force customers use the jets as VIP transports that can be quickly reconfigured to carry litters. The area around the door is configured to allow litters to be carried on.       

Gulfstream has “discussions ongoing with the Air Force” on the possibility of using the G550 or another platform as the next-generation AWACS, Rivet Joint, or EW platform, but those talks are preliminary, company officials said. Though USAF has used a rotating radome on its E-3 AWACS, that’s “not the only way to do it,” Miller said, noting that Singapore and Israel use G550s for the AWACS mission using conformal arrays mounted on either side of the jet.

Company officials showed reporters their commercial line and then a modification facility where the stock aircraft is converted to military use. Rather than tailor-build each jet used in a military mission, Gulfstream starts with a stock “green jet,” and then rips out wiring, parts of the fuselage that will be replaced with new fairings and structures, and plugs window holes.

Asked why Gulfstream goes to the trouble of finishing a jet first, Leda Chong, Senior VP for Government Programs and Sales, said it “makes more sense for us … to do it that way” because it keeps the production line moving and eliminates disruptions caused by program delays and technical changes from the prime, which “happen more than you would think,” Chong told Air Force Magazine. Miller said completing the aircraft first also preserves its FAA type certification. Technically, it’s not a wasted effort because the window holes, for example, can be put to use as “fuselage penetrations” where wiring can pass through to external accessories and structures like side-mounted radars.

Another advantage of the Gulfstream is that there’s already a worldwide parts enterprise in place, and there are 11 Gulfstream service centers worldwide, as well as eight “factory-authorized” service centers, Chong said. Moreover, “anyone who can fly” a G550 or G650, “can fly any of these aircraft,” Miller noted, referring to special mission variants. They require no dedicated engines or simulators because of their disparate roles, he said. “We don’t change the cockpit,” and this helps reduce training expense as well as modifications.

Overall, “we have a potent offering” for the upcoming special mission competitions, Miller said. About the only ones the company does not see itself positioned to answer are the requirements for an E-4B replacement and the Presidential aircraft. Both require room for far more people than a Gulfstream can carry. Chong said there are no plans at this point to “weaponize” Gulfstream’s business jets, by mounting hardpoints able to carry and launch munitions.

The commercial market will remain Gulfstream’s prime emphasis, Chong said.

“We stay focused on what we do” and are ready to “help government … control costs,” said Chong.