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The US Department of Defense (Dod) has approved the Milestone A phase of the multibillion-dollar programme to replace the ageing E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft.

The approval, signed by DoD undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics Frank Kendall, paves the way for funding demonstrations by competing developers, reported Reuters.

Three companies, including Northrop Grumman-General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin-Raytheon-Bombardier and Boeing are competing for the contract.

The three received a pre-engineering and manufacturing development contract, with a combined value of $31.4m, in August.

The Milestone A phase was denied approval in September and the air force was asked to work more on the proposal.

"JSTARS has flown well over 100,000 combat hours in support of recent contingencies."

The approval comes weeks after Georgia Republican Tom Graves and other US lawmakers urged the government to accelerate the programme to replace the JSTARS.

They said in a letter: "JSTARS has flown well over 100,000 combat hours in support of recent contingencies, reinforcing the importance of its mission for combatant commanders world-wide.

"Replacing the existing fleet with next generation aircraft is essential, which is why we want to ensure that the critical mission performed by the JSTARS team is not jeopardised by a lengthy acquisition process."

The US Air Force and the Air National Guard currently operates a fleet of 16 JSTARS aircraft. Robins Air Force Base outside of Macon, Georgia, is the home base of the aircraft.

Developed by Northrop Grumman, the E-8 is based on Boeing 707-300 airframe and provides ground situation information through communication via secure data links.

Responding to the approval for the programme, Graves said: "I am confident that the DoD understands JSTARS is a major priority for Congress, and will complete the process of updating the JSTARS fleet in a timely manner."

Image: The US operates a fleet of 16 E-8 JSTARS. Photo: Public domain.