WASHINGTON — A decision on the future of the JSTARS recap program appears to be imminent, with the U.S. Air Force’s top civilian doubling down on statements that the service would decide whether to cancel the program this month.

By the end of October, the U.S. Air Force will have completed a “rapid assessment” to determine whether the service can use existing platforms — including legacy aircraft, drones and other sensors — to accomplish the mission that a new battlefield management aircraft would be charged with, U.S. Air Force Heather Wilson explained.

“We really want the engineers to look at this. Is it possible to fuse the data? Do we have the technology developed and ready? We don’t want to do some hand-waving over a PowerPoint chart. Really show us that it is possible to do it this way, and what is the timeline by which we can do this. So that’s the scrub that we asked them to do,” she said during an Oct. 5 event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“And yeah, 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. 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 the other branch of government [Congress] what we think is the best thing to do and lay that out for them.”

Currently, three prime contractors are in source selection for the JSTARS recap competition, which will replace the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System that provides ground surveillance, targeting information and command and control. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and JSTARS incumbent Northrop Grumman have all submitted proposals for the recap program, and Northrop and Raytheon are duking it out to produce the radar that will be integrated with the aircraft.

The JSTARS recap program originated because of the perceived strain to the legacy E-8C fleet, which were thought to reach the end of their lifespans early next decade.

Now U.S. Air Force leaders believe they can fly the E-8Cs until about 2030, and they aren’t convinced a large airborne node is the most survivable way to conduct the mission going forward. As a result, the service is considering whether to cancel the recap program, using existing assets as a stopgap until a more advanced solution is developed.

Speaking broadly about changes to the U.S. Air Force’s space enterprise, Wilson described how the service is weighing how and when to disaggregate platforms, making them more distributed and less vulnerable to attack. “There are tradeoffs there,” she said, adding that the same conversation is happening in the JSTARS recap debate about future command and control.

Her statements don’t appear to bode well for the future of the program.

“We’ve got one large aircraft that we developed in 1991. It’s a great aircraft, a great concept, but technology has moved on from that. And everything is a sensor,” Wilson said.

“If an F-35 can send its picture and its radar image to another aircraft and we’re also pulling all of that down to a ground station in the Middle East, why can’t we do [this] distributed? We’re meeting only 5 percent of combatant commander requirements for battlefield command and control today. Can we do better than this?” she asked. “We’re asking ourselves those questions, and that does mean moving money among programs to try to meet more priorities.”

If the U.S. Air Force decides to move forward with the JSTARS recap, it is expected to award a contract next year to one of the three competitors. The program is worth an estimated $7 billion.

Following Wilson’s speech, Byron Callan of Capital Alpha Partners said the timing of an October announcement would be consistent with timing on fiscal year 2019 budget decisions.

“There might be more insight here from the Association of the U.S. Army meeting next week, as JSTARS is important for ground forces surveillance and support,” he wrote in a digest to investors.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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