The Air Force enraged Georgia lawmakers in 2018 when it asked to start retiring the state’s E-8C Joint STARS ground target-tracking jets without a ready replacement. Now, the service is extending an olive branch: offering a fleet of E-11A airborne communication planes to Robins Air Force Base if Congress lets it send four JSTARS aircraft to the boneyard.

“As the Air Force looks to the future, we expect to be challenged around the world by China and Russia,” said acting Air Force Secretary John Roth in a news release Wednesday. “Those threats require new solutions, which means divesting legacy platforms like the JSTARS.”

Under the new proposal, Robins would get a squadron of E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node aircraft — Bombardier business jets that are heavily modified with radios and other systems that let aircraft communicate with each other in flight during military missions.

E-11s are flown overseas by the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron alone. The Air Force already owns three BACN jets and plans to buy six more, including two in fiscal 2022.

“Nine E-11 BACN aircraft and a squadron of approximately 290 active-duty personnel will execute a mission with a very high [operational] tempo, enabling communications support to the joint force on the modern battlefield,” the Air Force said.

It could be a boon for both Robins and Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota. The service said airmen at Robins would offer command-and-control support for the E-11A mission as a detachment to the 319th Reconnaissance Wing at Grand Forks, which flies the RQ-4 Global Hawk reconnaissance drone.

“Bringing the E-11 under the jurisdiction of the 319th Reconnaissance Wing at the Grand Forks Air Force Base is an acknowledgment of the incredible leadership at the base, a recognition of how critical the base is to the nation’s defense, and a reminder of how the base is responsible for much more than what can be physically seen there,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-North Dakota, said Wednesday. “Today’s announcement will also help solidify the base’s long-term success and stability in Grand Forks.”

A press release from Cramer’s office said the BACN mission will stand up next year, pending language in the fiscal 2022 defense policy bill that the senator “will help craft as a member of [the Senate Armed Services Committee.”

For the BACN plan to move forward, that legislation also needs to green-light retirement of four of the 16 JSTARS jets. Congress has told the military that if it wants to ditch the E-8C, it needs to make substantial progress toward a replacement network of aircraft, sensors, weapons and data analytics systems known as the Advanced Battle Management System.

The Air Force said in May that BACN would be one of four new missions at Robins, home of the JSTARS enterprise in the active-duty 461st Air Control Wing and the Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing.

Other future missions may include classified support to ABMS starting in 2023, an active-duty electromagnetic spectrum warfare group that could arrive in 2024, and a command-and-control squadron that would handle daily operations in the Middle East beginning in 2022.

The Air Force has suggested all active-duty airmen and Guardsmen at Robins would staff those new missions. The base employs nearly 24,000 military personnel, civilians and contractors.

“I am committed to working with the Air Force to bring [the four new missions] to fruition, to ensuring the continuity of an operational flying mission at the base, to ensuring a complete role for both active and Guard personnel, and to making Robins the hub of the Air Force’s future communication structure that will answer the call of today’s threat environment,” Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Georgia, said in a joint statement with other state lawmakers and military officials in June.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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