WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon has given the US Air Force the green light to take the next step in its effort to recapitalize its ground-surveillance fleet.

Last night, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall signed an acquisition-decision memorandum approving a "Milestone A" decision to move the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System into the next phase of the acquisition cycle, spokeswoman Maureen Schumann confirmed Friday.

Kendall met earlier this week with Congressman Tom Graves, a Georgia Republican, to discuss the JSTARS recapitalization program, according to Graves' office. Graves was one of 60 members of key defense congressional committees who expressed concern in a late November letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter about delays in the acquisition program, and urged the Pentagon to move forward with the next generation of the fleet.

"Today I was encouraged to learn that the Defense Department is taking a significant step towards replacing the aging fleet with next generation aircraft," Graves said in a Dec. 11 email to Defense News, referring to the Milestone A decision. "I am confident that the Defense Department understands JSTARS is a major priority for Congress, and will complete the process of updating the JSTARS fleet in a timely manner."

The Air Force is breathing a sigh of relief after months of rumors that the Pentagon may postpone or even scrap the recapitalization program. Kendall has reviewed JSTARS twice in the past few months, and he has twice sent the Air Force and industry partners back to do more work on the program. Meanwhile, top Air Force officials have signaled budget constraints may force the program off the books.

"The question is where does it fit in the priorities of things? To the combatant commanders, it’s high on the priority list, but so are a lot of other things," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III said Dec. 1 at a Dec. 1 an event hosted by the Atlantic Council.

Despite a sense of urgency to recapitalize the fleet, the Pentagon may go back to the drawing board, outgoing Air Force acquisition chief William LaPlante said last month. Some factions in the building want to trade JSTARS for an unmanned platform like Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk remotely piloted surveillance aircraft, he said.

"There's still debate in the building, outside the Air Force, on whether you do this or you do other things," he said.

Several prominent analysts have even argued that JSTARS is becoming irrelevant in the modern battle space. In a highly networked, contested environment, it does not make sense to use a non-stealthy business jet for battlefield management, said Mark Gunzinger of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment.

"When you start to think that the air environment in particular is becoming increasingly contested, certainly in the Pacific, certainly in Europe, certainly in the Persian Gulf region … you have to ask, well, how are you going to use this in the future in those environments, and is it worth it, frankly?" Gunzinger said.

However, one source told Defense News Friday that the Pentagon has ruled out the possibility of an unmanned platform replacing the current JSTARS concept.

With the Pentagon's most recent decision, JSTARS will move into the technology-maturation and risk-reduction phase known as Milestone A. Kendall's signature authorizes additional contract money for industry partners to conduct system and platform demonstrations.

The Air Force officially kicked off the competition to replace its aging E-8 JSTARS in early August, awarding a trio of competitors each a pre-engineering and manufacturing-development contract, for a total of $31.4 million. Northrop Grumman, which builds the existing aircraft, is teamed with Gulfstream and its G550 business jet, with L-3 helping with integration. Lockheed Martin is working with Bombardier on a proposal based on the Canadian company's Global 6000 business jet. Meanwhile, Boeing is offering a modified version of its 737-700 commercial airliner.

The Air Force is expected to release a request for proposal (RFP) for the development contracts within the next two years. Industry expects a downselect for the full EMD award in the summer or early fall of 2017. The Air Force had initially planned to declare initial operational capability for JSTARS in fiscal 2022, but the latest budget proposal delayed that date to fiscal 2023.

The existing E-8 JSTARS is expected to retire starting in 2019.

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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