(February 13, 2018) The future is uncertain for JSTARS, an airborne command and control mission that has long been a staple in the Air National Guard.
Initial plans called for 17 new JSTARS planes, but the Air Force announced last week intentions to cancel the recap program in its fiscal year 2019 budget submission. The decision could put in jeopardy the 1,100 airmen of the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing, which operates JSTARS in partnership with the Air Force’s 461st ACW at Robins Air Force Base.
“We’ve got to move forward with continued funding because there will be a capabilities gap if we start retiring these planes,” said Matt Pincus, the NGAUS deputy legislative director. “Those guys who are on the ground love having the JSTARS out there because it provides the most capable and reliable surveillance and airborne battle management that they have.”
For years, major defense firms have been pushing their designs to replace the Georgia Air National Guard’s legacy inventory of E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System battlefield management and control aircraft.
Last year, however, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson requested a review on whether the mission could be completed without JSTARS. The current system meets only 5 percent of the requirements for combatant commanders, Wilson said, and if the new JSTARS is implemented, it would meet less than one percent of those needs.
In a change of pace, the Air Force would like to move toward a system-of-systems approach that will link together existing platforms to replace JSTARS, according to Defense News.
Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing had been in the running to win the estimated $6.9 billion contract for engineering, manufacturing and design of the plane, and in the process invested millions of dollars and were awaiting source selection by the government, according to Defense News.
Taxpayers have already invested more than $265 million in early research funding and about $400 million in additional funding has been approved in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
“[Congress has] continued to provide money toward research and the recapitalization program, it just hasn’t been supported by the Air Force,” said Pincus. “But behind the scenes Congress is very much interested in continuing this.”
The 2018 NDAA also says that if the Air Force terminates the program, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis must certify that a capability gap will not be caused by the decision.
But current options available, like drones or other aircraft, can’t match JSTARS’ capability, which is why the platform has been continuously deployed throughout the world since 9/11, said Pincus.
“All of the Air Force’s plans to retire the JSTARS is predicated on them bridging this capabilities gap, which they don’t have yet,” said Pincus. “What you need to keep doing is continue funding JSTARS recap and putting money toward new technology because there’s no alternative in place.”