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Lawmakers: Air Force May Scrap E-8 JSTARS Upgrade

The Air Force may be mulling a plan to scrap its E-8 JSTARS recapitalization program -- or so two lawmakers think.

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 new radar planes capable of developing, detecting, locating and tracking moving targets on the ground.

The lawmakers "were recently informed that the Air Force wishes to explore alternate intelligence and surveillance platforms instead of continued pursuit of the recapitalization of the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) fleet," Isakson and Perdue said in a letter sent to Defense Secretary James Mattis on Sept. 8.

The 16 aircraft fleet operates out of Robins Air Force Base, Georgia.

The senators said they have not received the rationale for the service reportedly axing the recap program, and furthermore, could not understand how the service could "conduct an analysis of alternatives prior to initiating the recapitalization process."

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The letter aside, Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Emily Grabowski on Tuesday said the service still intends to follow through with a JSTARS recap program,  but will keep other options on the table in any event the fiscal 2019 budget doesn't support a brand-new program.

 

"The Air Force remains in source selection for a follow-on to JSTARS as we continue to evaluate alternative approaches for battlefield command and control that could be more effective in high-threat environments," Grabowski said in an email to Military.com.

"In the meantime, we plan to continue to continue flying the current JSTARS fleet through fiscal year 2023.  Although we are exploring options, there are many steps still to be taken before any force structure proposals are included in the FY 2019 budget," Grabowski said.

Following the letter, Isakson and Perdue introduced on Tuesday afternoon an amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act which would limit the Air Force's ability to cancel the JSTARS recap until Mattis would OK the alternative approach and ensures there is no shortfall in the interim, Defense News reported.

The Air Force in December kicked off an open contest to build new radar planes capable of developing, detecting, locating and tracking moving targets on the ground.

The released request for proposal, or RFP, outlined the service's basic requirements to replace the current Northrop Grumman Corp.-modified E-8C.

The award stipulates $6.9 billion for the engineering, manufacturing and development phase, the Air Force said in a release. The RFP includes all aspects of the system, including airframe, radar, communication systems, and battle management command and control.

The Air Force plans to buy 17 new aircraft.

The airborne command and control plane, a modified Boeing 707-300 series commercial airframe that can fly as high as 42,000 feet, is "extensively remanufactured and modified with the radar, communications, operations and control subsystems," including a prominent 27-foot bathtub-like radome under the fuselage. The radome "houses the 24-foot long, side-looking phased array antenna," according to the Air Force.

In an op-ed titled, "Rethinking Radar Plane Recap: Will The Air Force Let Down The Army Again?," Forbes columnist Loren Thompson on Tuesday wrote divesting JSTARS would leave the Army -- which relies on the plane's real-time reconnaissance -- high and dry and directly in harm's way on the battlefield.

The Air Force "wants to conduct an 'analysis of alternatives' to determine whether there are better ways to do the mission," said Thompson, who writes about on the strategic, economic and business implications of defense spending for the publication.

Thompson went on to say, "That might sound reasonable if the service hadn't already conducted five such analyses that led to the current replacement program. A sixth review of options would come to the same conclusion, which means what's really going on is the Air Force is trying to jettison the capability entirely.

"Whatever highfalutin' rationale the Air Force may advance for this unfolding debacle, the bottom line is that it just doesn't value Army needs as highly as its own operational priorities," he said.

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