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The debate about aging aircraft has been brewing inside the Pentagon for years. Many of the U.S. military fleets are rapidly reaching the end of their operational lives. The answer, in many cases, is to upgrade airframes with new electronics and engines. In other cases, however, upgrades may not be enough.

That appears to be the case with the Navy's EA-6B Prowler, the Defense Department's only tactical radar-jamming airplane. The Prowler fleet's average age is 20 years and its maintenance is so expensive that it has driven the hourly cost of flying the airplane to $19,000.

There is a growing urgency at the Pentagon to come up with a plan to replace the Prowler. Because the plane flies strike-support missions for the Marine Corps and the Air Force, the replacement plan must take each service's needs into account.

While the Navy supports buying the EA-18, a modified F/A-18F Super Hornet, the Air Force wants to look at other options, such as upgrading the B-52 bomber and possibly using the X-45 unmanned combat vehicle as an electronic-jamming platform.

The opinions on this subject are many. You can read more in our cover story that begins on page 12.

During this summer's war-fighting experiments in the Mojave Desert, Army soldiers put to the test some new weapons systems that they plan to field in the next few years. Soldiers gave National Defense a first-hand account on what works and does not work with systems such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocker System and the Stryker light armored vehicle. For more details, turn to page 16.

In the decades ahead, meanwhile, the Navy is planning to boost the combat clout of attack submarines, by having these boats launch multiple types of unmanned vehicles and fire tactical ballistic missiles on a moment's notice. The submarine of 2020, according to the Navy's long-term blue-print for undersea warfare, will interact with unmanned underwater, surface and air vehicles.

Unmanned technologies also play a big role in the search for downed airplanes and sunken ships in deep ocean waters. The big breakthrough that the robotics industry has been seeking for the past 20 years--autonomous vehicles that can think independently--is finally here, but the technology is not yet mature and affordable enough. For a detailed account on the Navy's unmanned underwater vehicles plans, see the complete package starting on page 26.

On the international front, the United Kingdom has accelerated its Watchkeeper Unmanned Aerial Vehicles program and is waiting to select two consortia for an upcoming systems integration phase.

The $778 million Watchkeeper will bean Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance system for the collection of image intelligence on the battlefield. On page 30, you can read about the technologies each of the four competing consortia (led by Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Thales) are proposing and what the winning team have to do to fulfill the ambitious requirements.

As the deadline approaches for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to admit new alliance members, the United States will vote on which of the aspirant countries, all from central and southeastern Europe, will be invited to join. On page 38, you will find a derailed analysis of why the United States is expected to support a "big bang" enlargement. Gen. Joseph Ralston, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and Tan Brzezinski, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe/NATO policy offer their advice on which countries should be given the green light.
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Publication:National Defense
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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