WASHINGTON — Lawmakers will seek “balance” between the U.S. Air Force’s multibillion-dollar program to replace its aging E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System and a yet-undecided alternative, a key congressman said Tuesday.
House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said the subcommittee’s markup “will try to find the balance of funding taxis and Uber” — an analogy to legacy and new technologies that perform similar jobs.
The Air Force’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal would cancel the JSTARS recapitalization program in favor of a system-of-systems approach that links existing platforms for targeting and command and control. In the meantime, the Air Force would fly the current JSTARS fleet through 2023.
At the McAleese and Associates/Credit Suisse defense conference in Washington, Turner recalled how the Uber analogy was used at an Air Force caucus meeting to argue Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson needs to be able to free up funding for new technologies.
“But I said: ‘Taxis are still on the street,’ ” Turner said. “What that means is either we have to have a smorgasbord of capabilities. And that’s what we’re going to work towards with the secretary. If there is a capability that is absolutely essential, we are going to make sure it’s preserved.”
The Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, Lt. Gen Jerry Harris, told McAleese conference-goers the range and capability of the threat has outpaced the technology behind the JSTARS recap.
“The technology that is emerging is probably giving us a better option than when we did the study a few years ago,” Harris said, adding: “The sensor we have can’t see as far as the threats that are coming back, shooting it down. That’s not a good equation for us.”
The request for proposals for the JSTARS recap is ongoing, but the Air Force is taking an incremental approach that keeps the E-8 in service a little longer than planned. In the future, the sensor will be better, and the Air Force will aggregate form a variety of platforms, Harris said.
At a conference earlier this month, Wilson detailed plans beyond JSTARS ― to develop an advanced battle-management system that connects sensors for an improved understanding of the battlefield, a requirement for combatant commander.
“Think air traffic control on steroids,” she said.
Yet, any threat to JSTARS is likely to face a fight on Capitol Hill.
Georgia’s congressional delegation expressed concern last year, ahead of the Air Force’s reversal of plans to buy 17 new JSTARS recap planes to replace its legacy inventory of E-8Cs.
Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman — the three major U.S. military aircraft manufacturers — were all vying for the prime contractor slot.
Stephen Losey, of Air Force Times, contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.