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SASC: JSTARS upgrades better bet than UAVs for now

The Senate Armed Services Committee wants the Air Force to buy new engines for its fleet of E-8C Joint Surveillance-Target Attack System aircraft, it said this week, based on the notion that the service can spend the money and get the benefit before it would be able to field a new unmanned aircraft that could take JSTARS' mission. The 17 JSTARS birds need the upgrade, but the Air Force has held off as it has investigated its potential UAV options.  JSTARS is a big, flying sensor that does for ground forces what the E-3 Sentry AWACS does in the air -- provides a big tactical picture of who's out there, what they're doing, and how commanders might best act in response.

Senators said in a committee report that whether or not the Air Force ultimately replaces the human-piloted aircraft with a UAV, it doesn't think that'll happen soon enough to make it worth waiting any longer to upgrade the engines of the JSTARS fleet:

The Air Force decided to delay the re-engining program pending a study of overall ground moving target indicator (GMTI) requirements. Regardless of what that study concludes, however, the committee believes that re-engining the JSTARS fleet makes sense. Re-engining would lead to improvements in mission capability and safety of flight margins. If, as indicated by the Air Force, re-engining would actually pay back the investment costs in savings in operating and support costs, it would make economic sense as well. Unless the Defense Department were to decide that it can afford to divest itself of the broad area GMTI capability before 2018, the investment would be worth it.

The committee believes that the JSTARS system and the broad area GMTI capability it provides will have an important place in the future force structure. However, even if the Air Force study were to conclude that some new system or combination of systems would provide better broad area GMTI for the future, it is hard to imagine that another alternative would actually begin complete fielding of a JSTARS replacement capability before the re-engining pays for itself. The committee believes the Air Force should move expeditiously to complete that review and define its GMTI path forward.

That "combination of systems" phrase is telling -- it's possible that instead of replacing JSTARS with a big new UAV to accommodate a similar-sized radar, the service could try to field several smaller aircraft, all networked together, to achieve the same effect.

H/T: Daily Report

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