Air Force Seeks No-Bid Contract for General Dynamics’ Gulfstream Jet

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The U.S. Air Force wants to replace its aging fleet of EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare planes. The need is so urgent that the service wants to buy 10 new aircraft immediately on a no-bid contract worth $1.6 billion. Congress is not amused.

The EC-130H is highly modified version of the C-130 cargo plane built by Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT). The Air Force wants the 10 replacement aircraft to be modified versions of the Gulfstream G550. Gulfstream is a division of General Dynamics Corp. (NYSE: GD).

In its May report on the 2017 defense authorization bill, the Senate Armed Services Committee made it clear that it was not impressed with the idea:

The committee believes the Air Force’s proposal to recapitalize the EC–130H Compass Call aircraft using a sole source purchase of ten business class aircraft would not give us any confidence that the Air Force is achieving the maximum value for the American taxpayer. Additionally, allowing this sole source award to proceed could potentially prejudice source selections for other Air Force recapitalization programs, such as the program to replace the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft.

There are three bidders competing to build the new JSTARS aircraft: Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE: NOC) and Gulfstream; a team comprised of Lockheed and Canada’s Bombardier; and Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA). All three are proposing modified versions of a business jet to replace the existing Boeing 707-based E8 JSTARS planes.

The Gulfstream 550 is much smaller than the EC-130H, which carries a crew of 13 and has a maximum takeoff weight of 155,000 pounds. The four turbo-prop engines give the plane a range of 2,295 nautical miles and a flight ceiling of 25,000 feet.

Range for the Gulfstream 550 is 6,750 nautical miles, but its maximum takeoff weight is about 40% lower and its maximum cruising altitude is about double the EC-130H’s. The problem is how to fit all the gear in the current plane into a smaller space.

A new, unmodified G550 costs about $61 million, according to Defense One and the electronic gear from supplier BAE Systems costs about $100 million per plane.

Defense One also noted that Gulfstream has already built specialized intelligence planes based on the G550 for several governments, including the government of Israel.