The future E-8 JSTARS fleet's fate will be decided this month, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Thursday.
Echoing statements she made at the Women in Defense National Conference in Washington, D.C., last week, Wilson said a decision on whether the service will continue with an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System replacement will be made by the end of October.
The Air Force has a $6.9 billion Request for Proposal out for the engineering, manufacturing and development phase of the upgraded aircraft, which is capable of developing, detecting, locating and tracking moving targets on the ground.
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But there has been a capability gap, she said.
"They're very important to people on the ground to get air support where they need it -- but they're only meeting 5 percent of the [combatant commander] requirement. They have to go back and refuel; there are only a limited number of airframes," she said.
Over the Islamic State battlefield in Iraq and Syria, for example, there are a variety of space assets, fighters, "unmanned aircraft, seaborne radars, ground-based radars and we have the ability to integrate information we didn't have in 1991," Wilson said, referencing the Gulf War.
She added, "Can we pull all that information to give a better picture of command and control, and be putting that on the ground instead of in the back of an airplane?"
Wilson said that's what's being assessed by engineers.
Currently, 16 E-8 aircraft are headquartered at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia.
Last month, two lawmakers discovered the service may forgo the JSTARS replacement plan and seek out other aircraft alternatives for the mission.
Georgia Sens. Johnny Isakson and David A. Perdue said they were "alarmed" to find out the Air Force may pursue "alternative intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms" instead of procuring a JSTARS replacement.
"It's a cycle with the budget, and we know that we've got a request for proposals out there, and we've got people making decisions," Wilson said Thursday.
"We should be able to make a rapid assessment and a decision so that we can explain to the secretary of defense through the budget process, as well as [Congress], what we think is the best thing to do and lay that out for them," she said.
Pending an override decision, the Air Force plans to buy 17 JSTARS replacement aircraft for the battlefield command-and-control mission.