WASHINGTON — Congress is waging a public battle on the fate of the JSTARS recap program, but behind the scenes, the Air Force is quietly taking steps that will allow them to award a contract for a program that leaders say they don’t need.
The service received final proposal revisions for the JSTARS recap program on June 22, confirmed Air Force spokeswoman Maj. Emily Grabowski in a statement to Defense News.
“The Air Force wants to be postured to move forward with JSTARS recap, if required. Therefore, we are continuing source selection while we continue to work with Congress on the way forward,” Grabowski said in a statement.
Usually, the government solicits final proposals and pricing information from competitors just weeks before making a final downselect. Thus, if Congress decides to force the Air Force to continue on with the program, it’s likely the service will be able to award a contract in very short order.
The Air Force began the JSTARS recap program as an effort to replace its aging E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System ground surveillance planes with new aircraft and a more capable radar. The initial plan was to buy 17 new JSTARS recap jets from either Boeing, Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman.
However, the service announced during February’s fiscal year 2019 budget rollout that it preferred to cancel the JSTARS recap program and fund an “Advanced Battle Management System” that would upgrade and link together existing aircraft and drones, allowing them to do the JSTARS mission.
The Air Force’s continued source selection efforts are necessary due to Congress, which is split on the issue of whether to continue to the program.
Both Senate defense committees have sided with the Air Force, and would allow it to kill JSTARS recap as long as it continues to fund the current JSTARS fleet. The Senate version of the defense spending bill also includes an additional $375 million to accelerate the ABMS concept with additional MQ-9 Reapers and other technologies.
Meanwhile, the House version of the bill would force the Air Force to award an engineering and manufacturing development contract for JSTARS recap to one of the three competitors, which had been valued at $6.9 billion. However, some lawmakers have said they might be willing to accept a truncated recap program to bridge the way until ABMS is fielded.
“All of the committees understand the need for moving to the advanced battle management system,” Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, told reporters in June. “If there are disagreements between the committees, it’s about whether we can move straight to that and hold onto our legacy JSTARS as a way to bridge until we do that, or do we need to do one more recap of that system”
The timing of final proposal revisions actually puts source selection for JSTARS recap ahead of that of the still ongoing T-X trainer jet program, which as of late June had not reached that stage.
However, Congress will likely need time to resolve the JSTARS recap issue — meaning a contract decision is far from imminent. The House and Senate armed services committees began the conference process in June, which could allow them to reconcile differences in the defense policy bill as early as this summer.
However, only appropriations bills can be used to fund government programs like JSTARS recap, and spending legislation could be stuck in limbo for months past that.
If deliberations stretch out, “the Air Force will continue to assess contract award timelines and approvals. If necessary, the Air Force will request an extension of proposal validity or updated pricing as appropriate,” Grabowski said.
Meanwhile, lawmakers continue to debate the case in the public eye.
In a July 3 editorial for The Telegraph, Republican Rep. Austin Scott, one of the biggest proponents of the recap program, argued that it would be more economical to proceed with JSTARS recap than to continue to do extensive depot maintenance on the legacy aircraft.
“After 10 years of work, the Air Force is considering canceling the JSTARS recap program,” wrote Scott, whose district in Georgia is home to Robins Air Force base, where the JSTARS aircraft reside. “Their arguments do not take into account the significantly improved capabilities and increased capacity that the new aircraft will provide. The Air Force has ignored its own assessments in their recommendation for cancellation.”
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.