WASHINGTON — The US Air Force on Wednesday released a request for proposals (RFP) for the JSTARS recap program after the Pentagon's top weapons buyer waived statutory language that would have compelled the service to pursue a fixed-price contract.

The waiver, granted by Defense Department acquisition chief Frank Kendall on Dec. 23, allows the Air Force to proceed with a hybrid contracting strategy that includes both fixed-price and cost-plus elements. In the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress stipulated that the engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD) phase of the JSTARS recap must be executed under a fixed-price deal — a change that Air Force leaders had said could add months to the program.

"We realize intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance is currently a combatant commander top priority," Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in a statement. "Given the language in this year's defense policy bill, we took additional time before releasing the JSTARS request for proposal. With the support of the department on the importance of JSTARS to national security, we are moving out to deliver this critical ISR capability. We will continually look for ways to speed up the process towards initial operational capability."

In an exclusive interview with Defense News earlier this month, James disclosed that the Air Force might seek a waiver. She directed service acquisition executive Darlene Costello to evaluate whether a fixed-price approach was feasible, but James herself had concerns that reworking the contract strategy would delay initial operational capability (IOC).

"If we were to full stop that [hybrid strategy] and come back to firm-fixed price, I'm sure that would cause a delay because we would in essence be largely starting over. So a delay in the RFP would produce a delay in the IOC," she said then.

The JSTARS recap program, worth about $6.9 billion during the EMD phase, will replace the original Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System fleet, a Boeing 707-based design that provides command and control and ISR capabilities. The original JSTARS aircraft have flown more than 125,000 combat hours since the September 11, 2001 attacks. However, the high-demands of combatant commanders have taken its toll, and the planes are becoming more difficult and expensive to maintain.

"The future of combined arms lies in fusing information through multi-domain, networked, and integrated command and control," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said in a statement. "It's going to be far more about how you take all the information you collect and turn that into decision-quality information faster than any adversary could ever counter. A recapitalized JSTARS will play an integral role in this future."

The service plans to award a contract in fiscal 2018 that includes the first three test aircraft, including the airframes, radar, communication systems, and battle management command and control suite. Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are the prime contractors competing for the award, and they are able to submit as many as two proposals — one with a Raytheon radar and the other with a Northrop Grumman radar, both of which are moving through risk-reduction efforts.

The EMD contact award also contains contract options for two low-rate initial production JSTARS systems, as well as the remaining full-rate production aircraft. Other options include ground support systems, training materials, integration labs and spares.

The Air Force plans to field the first assets by fiscal 2024 and buy 17 aircraft total.­