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Hanscom lands defense contract for surveillance system

Hanscom Air Force Base’s research operations won a little job security amid looming defense cuts after the facility landed a critical contract overseeing the rollout of the next generation of high-tech battlefield surveillance systems.

The Bedford base was chosen to lead the overhaul of the Air Force’s Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, with $73 million set aside for the first phase of establishing the new JSTARS platform, according to an announcement by members of the state’s congressional delegation.

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US Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, hailed the proposed funding, which was included in President Obama’s budget for next fiscal year.

“Most importantly it reflects the Air Force’s commitment to Hanscom’s mission,” Tsongas said.

The decision comes after an epic lobbying effort by top elected state and federal officials and business leaders to highlight Hanscom’s capabilities and spare the sprawling base from budget cuts.

Chris Anderson, president of the Massachusetts Defense Technology Initiative, which represents an array of local defense contractors and universities, cited a long campaign going back to Mitt Romney’s term as governor and the late US Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

“The Air Force recognizes the key themes that we have been sharing with them over the last decade,” he said. “Hanscom’s proximity to the deepest innovation assets in the country are important to a mission like JSTARS.”

Chuck Paone, public affairs director at Hanscom, was not able to provide an estimate of the number of jobs that might be created under the project.

The real value for local businesses will be in all the subcontracting and side projects that go on for high-tech projects such as JSTARS, Anderson said.

First designed in the 1990s at Hanscom, the surveillance system features 18 airborne radar installations that are linked to track enemy forces on the ground.

“Hanscom is the birthplace of modern radar and airspace management,” said Tsongas, who also cochairs the Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force, a state-level group devoted to lobbying for more federal dollars for research at Hanscom.

The Air Force facility will oversee the development of a new JSTARS platform, which will involve replacing the current fleet of aging 707s — retired commercial airliners — with smaller, modern, more efficient corporate-style jets, Paone said.

The $73 million in the proposed budget would pay for the initial design and engineering work in drafting the technical specifications, but the ultimate price tag would likely hit some $6 billion, he said.

“This is effectively seed money to get the design work going and flesh out the technical requirements,” Paone said. “For us, it just demonstrates we continue to lead efforts to provide war fighting capabilities for US forces. This is what we do.”

A cadre of 25 people has been created by the Air Force at Hanscom for the initial work on the JSTARS project, according to Paone, with the number expected to grow over time.

Some key aspects of the project, such as command and control systems requiring sophisticated computer and electronic systems, are likely to provide opportunities for tech industry companies across Greater Boston and New England, Anderson said.

Meanwhile, another initiative aimed at enhancing Hanscom’s research and development capabilities was also recently unveiled by officials at the base.

Air Force officials are lobbying for an upgrade of the power capacity of a key Hanscom project that tests new cybersecurity systems.

The upgrade calls for a 120-foot tower that would provide a link among Hanscom, the government-funded MITRE Corp. research and development center in Bedford, and the Otis and Barnes Air National Guard bases on Cape Cod and in Westfield, respectively.

State legislators are considering a $2.9 million bond bill to pay for the improvements, Paone said. The upgraded testing network may eventually be opened up for research by local universities and commercial companies.

“It’s an ideal atmosphere for cyber and IT exploration,” said Major Chris Dupin, manager of the testing program at Hanscom, in a statement put out by the base. “And we hope to continue growing and leading the way with existing and evolving technologies.”

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@ hotmail.com.
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