WASHINGTON — Members of the House Armed Services Committee have taken the first step to prohibit the U.S. Air Force from killing the JSTARS recap program and starting afresh with a family-of-systems approach called the Advanced Battle Management System.
The HASC’s Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee on Wednesday put forward its portion of the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill. Included in it is a provision that would cap funding for the Advanced Battle Management System at 50 percent until the Air Force puts JSTARS recap on contract.
“The restriction would remain in effect until the Secretary of the Air Force certifies to the congressional defense committees that the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System Recapitalization program, as submitted and described in the fiscal year 2018 budget request, is proceeding unhindered with originally planned activities associated with engineering, manufacturing, and development; low-rate initial production; production; and initial contractor support,” the text of the subcommittee’s part of the bill stated.
Or in short: Proceed with the original JSTARS recap plan, or move forward with serious financial constraints on its alternative approach.
The Air Force had initially planned to purchase 17 aircraft to replace its E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System battlefield management and control aircraft, with a $6.9 billion contract originally slated to be decided this year.
All competitors — Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — remain in source selection, even as the service announced its intention to cancel the program during a February rollout of the FY19 budget.
The Air Force wants to proceed with a concept it’s calling the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, which calls for upgrading existing platforms and improving how they are networked together.
For instance, the service intends to put a miniaturized ground moving target indicator radar on the MQ-9 Reaper drone, which would allow it to detect, find and shoot down adversaries without help from another platform. It also would revitalize seven E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System planes with new communications gear.
But HASC members questioned the maturity of the Air Force’s plan during a March hearing, raising concerns that if the service backed out of JSTARS recap now, it could find itself without a key command-and-control capability if ABMS doesn’t pan out.
In its markup, subcommittee members also pushed up against the Air Force’s intention to retire three JSTARS aircraft in FY19. Instead, it would only allow the service to divest one of its 16 JSTARS planes.
The subcommittee also included provisions calling for a number of reports on the program, including an assessment of the ABMS acquisition strategy by the comptroller general and an Air Force report on whether it could accelerate JSTARS recap.
What the language doesn’t do, HASC staffers told reporters, is require the Air Force to purchase all 17 JSTARS aircraft originally included in the program of record.
That could lead the way to a potential compromise that would see the service procure some of the JSTARS recap aircraft as a stopgap before ABMS comes online.
The JSTARS provisions still have a long way to go before becoming law, including HASC subcommittee and full committee markups where members have a chance to amend the bill. From there, it moves onto debate by the House, and afterward will enter into “conference,” in which both chambers of Congress settle on one version of the defense bill.
However, the decision to fund or defund a program ultimately rests with the Appropriations committees — meaning that even if the House and Senate Armed Services committees agree to force the Air Force to continue JSTARS recap, appropriations will still need to sign onto continued funding for the program.
In the upper chamber, Senate Armed Services Committee member David Perdue, R-Ga., has raised concerns about a capability gap should the Air Force mothball its fleet. He is pushing for his own interim solution.
Perdue had been working to defend the surveillance aircraft, whose mission is carried out at Robins Air Force Base in his home state. On Wednesday, he declined to say how he would attempt to address the issue in the SASC’s version of the NDAA, only that “we’re talking about it.”
“The current fleet is aging out, and before the new fleet comes on, there’s a four- to eight-year gap,” Perdue said. “We are asking questions, expressing concerns. The Air Force is developing a new capability ― it’s space-based and land-based. I get that, but I’m concerned about the mid 2020s.”
Instead of extending the life of the JSTARS fleet, Perdue argues the Air Force could build a new low-cost fleet for the interim. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the program, as JSTARS originated with used Boeing 707s as a cheap way to surveil over the horizon in Europe.
“Go to Arizona and buy a platform that’s sitting there for nothing, put the capability on there, and keep flying it,” Perdue said. “The current cost to maintain these 707s is outrageously expensive.”
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.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.