WARNER ROBINS -- Recent comments by the Air Force chief of staff were cause for excitement for those who work in the J-STARS mission at Robins Air Force Base.
The Air Force has previously listed its top three acquisition priorities as the KC-46A refueling tanker, a long-range strike bomber and the F-35 fighter. However, while speaking at an Air Force Association conference, Gen. Mark Welsh added a fourth priority, which is new planes for J-STARS, or Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.
J-STARS currently flies decades-old E-8Cs, which have been badly in need of new engines. However, an Air Force analysis suggested replacing the aircraft would be more cost effective.
After the top three acquisition priorities, Welsh said, "I think the first thing we need to do is recapitalize J-STARS," according to a story in Air Force Magazine.
J-STARS is flown by the 116th Air Control Wing and the 461st Air Control Wing, in conjunction with the Army's 138th Military Intelligence Company, which communicates data to commanders on the ground.
The planes fly over combat areas and use radar to track enemy movements. Ground commanders can see that data in almost real time.
"That intelligence has been phenomenally successful," Welsh said. "All the combatant commanders want it."
Col. Kevin Clotfelter, commander of the 116th Air Control Wing, said it was a big deal for Welsh to say getting new J-STARS planes is fourth on the priority list.
"It shows that senior leaders recognize the necessity of battle management surveillance," Clotfelter said.
There is still much to be decided before any new J-STARS planes land at Robins, and Clotfelter didn't offer a guess as to when that could be. Ultimately, new planes will have to be approved by Congress.
J-STARS planes are also in need of an upgrade of their electronics, and it's possible a new platform could mean a smaller and more efficient plane could be flown. Clotfelter said that will have to be decided before a plane is chosen.
He also said J-STARS could ultimately end up with a different name, but he did not foresee any reason why the mission should not remain at Robins.
Retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon, president of the 21st Century Partnership, said in an email that Welsh's comments were welcome news.
"Clearly, the J-STARS mission continues to be a standout, critical contributor to our national security objectives and deserves this recognition," McMahon said. "Regardless of what alternative the Air Force selects to perform the mission, our focus will be to ensure that the mission remains based at Robins Air Force Base and is performed by the men and women of the 116th and 461st Air Control Wings."
J-STARS have been heavily deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The unit recently surpassed 85,000 combat flying hours since the Sept. 11 attacks, which is the equivalent of 19.4 hours per day.