ORLANDO, Florida — In its recently unveiled fiscal 2019 budget proposal, the Air Force canceled its JSTARS recapitalization program in favor of a disaggregated battle management approach that will rely on unmanned aircraft and seven revitalized E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System planes, at least in the near term.
“Buying a new version of something that was revolutionary 30 years ago doesn’t take us to a more competitive future,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Thursday in a speech at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium here.
“That’s why the chief and I decided to change gears and convince the Joint Staff, and the [Office of the Secretary of Defense] staff and the secretary to change gears, too. We will not recapitalize a system that is ill-suited to operating in a contested domain.”
Much of the service’s way forward still needs to be set in stone, said Wilson and Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, during a roundtable with reporters later the same day.
However, the service has laid out a preliminary plan to bridge the gap between the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and the yet-to-be-determined system-of-systems approach that would be fielded further down the road.
Here’s what we know so far:
Northrop Grumman could still see its JSTARS recap investment pay off.
Although three prime contractors — Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop — saw their hopes of a $6.9 billion contract dashed when the JSTARS recap was killed, Northrop was, by and large, considered the biggest loser. The company is the maker of the legacy system and had already won a battle with Raytheon to manufacture a new ground moving target indicator (GMTI) radar for the JSTARS recap, regardless of which company ultimately won the prime contracting gig.
However, Holmes indicated that the Air Force could go forward with a purchase of the Northrop radar at some point.
“That radar is kind of a modular radar. It’s built on taking modules and adding them together. So I think there may be uses for that radar,” he said, adding that the service could know more about that once it completes the advanced battle management system analysis of alternatives that will kick off this summer.
Some MQ-9 Reapers could be getting a new radar.
To help replace the capability that will be lost when JSTARS retires in the mid 2020s, the Air Force plans to outfit some of its MQ-9 Reaper drones with a new ground surveillance radar that would allow them to close the kill chain all on their own, Holmes said.
The service wants “to spend some money to develop a GMTI radar,” he said, but he left it unclear whether the service will be able to repurpose an existing design and how many MQ-9s could get the upgrade.
Budget documents show the Air Force plans to spend an additional $10 million this year on an MQ-9 Reaper modification called the “dismount radar,” which will add a moving target indicator (MDI) capability.
That radar, in concert with the aircraft’s existing electro-optical sensor and weapons, would allow it to detect, find and shoot down adversaries without having to depend on another asset.
“Instead of having one airplane flying something with GMTI and cue another sensor to go look at it visually and then cue something to go strike it as necessary, we’ll look at providing the capability to do all that from one airplane and see if we can speed that up,” Holmes said.
The Air Force will upgrade seven AWACS.
The service had planned to retire seven AWACS this year, but instead those aircraft will be made over with new, advanced communications gear and sensors.
“We’ll upgrade those airplanes and then, with some already planned things, [put in] a little bit more effort with it to adjust the comms systems on those airplanes,” Holmes said.
“We’ll be able to bring more data to them and allow them, kind of in extremis, to also do air-to-ground battle management, which frankly, they do now,” he said. “But can we provide them more information?”
Some of that money is already in the FY19 budget. Justification documents show that the service intends to request $120.6 million in FY19 for AWACS modifications, with that funding increasing to $203 million over the next five years. Although that will pay for multiple upgrades, $5.7 million of the FY19 sum will go toward “advanced management and surveillance bridge capabilities” such as advanced communications, networking and sensor systems.
“First, it will probably be more of an ad hoc kind of laptop system, but we’d have to build it into their systems later as we went forward,” Holmes said.
The Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft could see more investment, too.
“The Global Hawk Block 40 is certainly not the same thing as JSTARS, but it does provide useful GMTI information,” Holmes said. “We’ll spend some money to bring that information and make it more useful in real time.”
General Atomics and Northrop could win big if additional orders pile in.
Unmanned aircraft manufacturers could be among the biggest beneficiaries of the service’s decision to cancel the JSTARS program.
As the mission set for the Reaper and Global Hawk grows, the Air Force may need to buy more of them “and [put] different kinds of capabilities on them, and communication links on them,” Wilson said.
That would be a boon to Northrop, which makes the Global Hawk, and General Atomics, the creator of the MQ-9.
Three legacy JSTARS will retire in FY19.
The Air Force has handpicked three of its 17 legacy JSTARS for divestment in 2019. The reason, according to Wilson, is that these particular aircraft have become “hangar queens” and were no longer flying missions due to longstanding problems. The service opted not to continue to fund their continued sustainment, but the rest of the fleet will operate into the mid-2020s.
As for what will happen to the JSTARS crews, the Air Force is still working on how best to reabsorb that expertise as it conducts the battle management command and control mission in different ways.
“It may change our training. It may change our force structure. We’re still committed to the mission, but we’re going to do the mission in a different way,” Wilson said.
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and 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.