WASHINGTON, Nov 24 (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force urgently needs to replace its aging fleet of ground surveillance and battle management planes, its top acquisition chief said on Tuesday, while acknowledging tight budgets and competing priorities have clouded the program's future.
William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said the current 18 E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft, or JSTARS, were doing "incredible" work in military operations, but nearly half the planes were out for maintenance at any given time.
"The situation is urgent," LaPlante, who retires at the end of this week, told reporters. "They're going to fall out of the sky in 2017."
LaPlante said a final decision on whether to proceed with a competition for new aircraft would come when the fiscal 2017 budget was released early next year.
Northrop Grumman Corp, which builds the existing aircraft, has won one of three small contracts for early development work on a replacement, teaming up with General Dynamics Corp's Gulfstream. The others were awarded to Lockheed Martin Corp, teamed with Canada's Bombardier and Boeing Co, which is offering a modified 737-700 commercial airliner.
The companies had expected the Pentagon to authorize additional funds for system and platform demonstrations in September, but that decision was postponed while officials debated the future of the program.
LaPlante said the Air Force still viewed the planes as a priority and had finalized its requirements for the replacement aircraft. But he said other Defense Department factions wanted to use the funds for additional Northrop unmanned Global Hawk aircraft or other intelligence gathering equipment. Some also questioned how the planes would function in a more complex and sophisticated war environment.
LaPlante acknowledged that the Pentagon faced a "huge hole" in building a fiscal 2017 budget and funding all the competing priorities.
He said a two-year congressional budget agreement had made the planning process easier this year, and he expected hard decisions about programs like JSTARS by the end of December.
"It's a collective decision that ultimately goes to the secretary of defense," he said.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Christian Plumb