WASHINGTON — In the newly released fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill, Congress doesn’t exactly force the Air Force to move forward with JSTARS recap, which the service wishes to cancel in fiscal 2019. But lawmakers didn’t make it easy for the service to walk away from it.

If passed by Congress, the language in the spending bill would prohibit the Air Force from using the $405 million designated for the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System recapitalization program on any other effort, including the service’s new Advanced Battle Management System plan.

However, it does offer up a back door: Congress might be willing to move the funding to another program if requested by the Air Force, and if the Defense Department submits a report about alternatives to JSTARS recap.

“Despite years of affirmations to Congress on the need to pursue JSTARS recapitalization and an ongoing source selection process, the Air Force asserts that the program will not be viable in future contested environments and lacks compelling improvements over legacy capabilities,” the omnibus language states.

However, “the proposal to cancel JSTARS recapitalization, pursue alternatives, and ensure no duplication between efforts requires careful consideration by Congress through the fiscal year 2019 budget process.”

The Air Force requested $417 million in fiscal 18 to continue development of the JSTARS recap, with a contract award to a single vendor — either Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman — expected in calendar year 2018.

But service leadership including Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein grew concerned that modified commercial planes would not be able to survive a battle with a peer competitor in a contested environment. By September, the service had acknowledged that it was seeking alternatives to the JSTARS recap program.

Some lawmakers have argued that the service should move forward with JSTARS recap and pursue a more disaggregated solution later, citing previous analysis supporting the effort and more than $265 million already spent on the recap program.

According to the bill, the defense secretary must submit a report to congressional defense committees that includes the following information:

  • The plan for retiring the current E-8C JSTARS fleet and options for retaining them
  • Whether the Air Force can address concerns about the survivability of the JSTARS recap by changing requirements, such as radar range or the size, weight, power and cooling margins of the aircraft
  • The cost and schedule of the Advanced Battle Management System plan from FY19 to FY23
  • The cost and schedule of procuring Army and Navy platforms that could help conduct the battle management and surveillance mission currently done by JSTARS

In February, Air Combat Command head Gen. Mike Holmes said the service is still working out the finer details of its new Advanced Battle Management System plan, but the general idea is that the Air Force could network together some of its existing capabilities to fill the JSTARS role.

Near-term plans include retaining seven E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft and upgrading them with new communications gear, as well as outfitting some MQ-9 Reaper drones with a new ground moving target indicator radar.