WASHINGTON — Three of the four congressional committees that oversee the Pentagon have hammered out their annual defense legislation, and it’s clear that there’s no consensus on whether to kill the Air Force’s JSTARS recap program.
The Air Force, in its fiscal year 2019 budget request, aimed to cancel JSTARS recap, which would replace the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft with new planes.
Instead, the service planned to invest in a new Advanced Battle Management System concept — a series of targeted investments that would allow the Air Force to better network together its existing aircraft and drones to do the ground surveillance mission. It also wanted to retire three legacy E-8Cs.
While it’s obvious that all of the congressional defense committees disagree with aspects of the Air Force’s new strategy, it appears that a faceoff is coming between the House — which favors the JSTARS recap approach — and the Senate, which seems to be leaning in favor of cancelation.
Both House committees have thusfar included funding and language that would force the Air Force to award an engineering and manufacturing development contract to one of the three competitors in source selection for the program.
Meanwhile, the Senate Armed Services Committee would allow the Air Force to proceed with the JSTARS recap cancelation, and instead wants to pour money into ABMS to accelerate fielding. A Senate staffer told Defense News that it’s likely that Senate appropriators will follow suit when they release their version of the bill.
One reason that senators may be warming up to the prospect of a JSTARS recap cancelation is the Air Force’s decision, announced Wednesday, to base ABMS at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, where the E-8C fleet is located.
Georgia’s congressional delegation had been staunch defenders of retaining the legacy JSTARS and of the JSTARS recap. But Rep. Austin Scott and Sens. Johnny Isakson and David Perdue hailed the decision to base ABMS at Robins in a joint statement.
And — importantly — the lawmakers acknowledged a transition from JSTARS to ABMS with no mention of the recap program.
“This decision by the U.S. Air Force underscores our ability to host critical strategic assets capable of impacting battlefields around the world,” said Isakson. “We welcome any and all new missions that the Air Force is willing to bring to Robins, and I will continue to work with the Air Force as the implementation of this plan proceeds.
Here’s how each of the congressional defense committees want to proceed.
The House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee put forward their version of fiscal 2019 spending bill on Wednesday.
While it’s unclear how much money is included for JSTARS recap in the bill, it’s clear that the intention is to move forward with the program.
“None of the funds made available by this or any other Act may be obligated or expended to divest more than one E-8C aircraft unless the Secretary of the Air Force certifies to the congressional defense committees that funds made available in this or any other Act have been obligated pursuant to the award of one or more contracts to continue the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System recapitalization program,” the language states.
Or in short, the committee will be given funding to put JSTARS recap under contract. And until the Air Force does that, it won’t be able to retire as many E-8Cs as it wants.
This committee is especially important because it, along with the Senate Appropriations Committee, is responsible for determining how the Pentagon spends its money. By contrast, the Senate and House armed service committees’ defense authorization bill only provides spending recommendations.
Senate Armed Services Committee
Meanwhile, the SASC addresses the prospect of a capability gap differently. Rather than mandating JSTARS recap’s continuation, it increases funding to accelerate ABMS, adding $120 million to buy six more MQ-9 Reapers, a staffer said.
The Air Force envisions the Reaper as part of the ABMS network, and plans to upgrade a portion of the Reaper fleet with a miniaturized ground moving target indicator radar like the ones currently carried by JSTARS. Increasing the Air Force’s MQ-9 fleet will help ensure the service retains its capacity to accomplish the ABMS mission as well as the existing surveillance and strike duties carried out by the Reaper today, the staffer said..
To ensure that there’s no loss in capability while ABMS is stood up, it also invests in the legacy JSTARS aircraft. Language in SASC’s version of the NDAA prohibits the Air Force from retiring any E-8Cs unless its civilian head determines that those planes are no longer flyable due to mishaps, damage or because repairs have become uneconomical.
The committee adds $50 million to continue investing in the Northrop Grumman radar that was originally developed to go on new JSTARS planes. Air Force officials have said that radar could have other use cases across the fleet.
It also adds about $98 million for contractor logistics support, operations and maintenance needed to keep all of the E-8Cs flying.
House Armed Services Committee
HASC unequivocally wants the Air Force to continue the JSTARS recap program, authorizing $623 million in its defense policy bill to carry on the program.
Its version of the bill also includes a provision that halves funding for the Advanced Battle Management System unless the Air Force gives a JSTARS recap contract to Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin or Boeing, which all remain in source selection.
Like the other defense committees, it also limits the number of E-8Cs the Air Force can divest, capping it at one aircraft.
HASC’s proposal would allow all of the stakeholders to have their cake and eat it too. The Air Force would be able to move on with ABMS, the JSTARS recap program would continue on, and additional E-8C aircraft would be retained in the meantime.
But all of that has a cost, Air Force leaders have warned.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told the Senate on May 17 that it would cost an extra $7 billion over its current budget proposal to operate both JSTARS and ABMS.
From a survivability standpoint, the Air Force is right to want to invest in a more disaggregated battle management architecture like ABMS, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group.
But with all of the committees fearful of a capability gap, it’s very likely that the Air Force will have to field at least some JSTARS recap planes as an interim solution.
“What is the date that the network becomes truly effective? What’s the gap between E-8 retirement and that marvelous capability? And Congress is clearly signaling that it will be a longer than an acceptable gap,” Aboulafia said.
“Given that the Air Force occasionally gets beaten up for not supporting ground troops, they might want to give in on this.”
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.