Air Force: It’s time to pull the plug on JSTARS; Congress: Not so fast

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This article originally appeared in the March 26, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson calls it a “bold move”: cancel a $6.5 billion purchase of high-tech ground surveillance aircraft and shift that mission to a network dubbed “advanced battle management system.”

The argument the Air Force makes in its 2019 budget request for not buying new aircraft to replace the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, is rather straightforward. It can’t survive modern air defenses.

The Air Force in 2011 started a five-year study that looked at options for replacing the aging fleet of 17 airliner-size JSTARS. Up until a year ago, it was moving down the conventional path of selecting a new airplane to take over when the current fleet is taken out of service in 2024.

At some point during this period of analysis, the realization set in that a new JSTARS would be useless in conflicts against adversaries that have advanced air defenses.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein explained this thinking during a recent congressional hearing. JSTARS today flies in “uncontested” airspace over the Middle East, “where I can actually place any aircraft I have in the inventory anywhere I want and fly it for as long as I want, because there’s nothing that can actually take it out or threaten it.”

The Trump administration’s national defense strategy directs the military to focus on “contested environments.” That means figuring out how to fight in places that are within the range of Chinese or Russian surface-to-air missiles. That would make JSTARS a nonstarter, Goldfein argued. “They know what our asymmetric advantages are and they’ve invested in capabilities to take those away from us.” Their strategy is to “hold us off at ranges where we can either no longer perform our mission.”

If JSTARS were taken down during a conflict, U.S. troops on the ground would be “blind to enemy activity.”

All this led the Air Force to conclude that the traditional “platform solution” is not going to work, Wilson told lawmakers.

JSTARS’s ground moving target indicator and battle management command functions could be done elsewhere by other platforms, she said. The future battle-management network would be a vast improvement over JSTARS because it would bring in data from sensors in space, from C-130s, drones and F-35 fighters. War commanders want this, Wilson said. “Fuse all of that data to give you a much more comprehensive picture on what’s going on on the ground.” Operators “don’t really care what platform it came off of.”

But recent exchanges on Capitol Hill suggest the Air Force is having a hard time selling this vision. Lawmakers who represent JSTARS bases and contractors are pushing back hard. Others don’t really understand what the Air Force wants to do. And because JSTARS supports troops on the ground, the debate appears to be turning into a repeat of the A-10 Thunderbolt II; Air Force leaders wanted to retire the close-air support aircraft but Congress has stubbornly kept it alive.

“We understand the projected threats to our forces are real and that the Air Force has submitted a budget that does not include JSTARS recap. However, completely walking away from this program may prove to be an unacceptable level of risk to our warfighters for this committee,” said Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services tactical forces subcommittee.

The subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachussetts, questioned the rationale for terminating the new version of JSTARS. If threats are as serious as they seem, why isn’t the Air Force eliminating its fourth-generation fighters or other reconnaissance systems based on commercial aircraft?

Tsongas also called out the Air Force for downplaying the risks involved with the alternative network plan, “specifically the time risk, the cost risk and potential vulnerability of such a network to jamming or cyber attack,” she said.

Air Force Lt. Gen. Anthony Ierardi, director of force structure, resources, and assessments, said current JSTARS aircraft will stay in service for several more years until the new battle-command network is available. This is projected to happen around 2035.

“I acknowledge your concern with the timeline,” said Ierardi. The plan includes a “graceful degradation” in the numbers of JSTARS while the battle-management network is being developed.

The U.S. Air Force operates a fleet of 17 JSTARS aircraft that the service says could be easily shot down by a near-peer adversary such as Russia or China. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Michael Battles
The U.S. Air Force operates a fleet of 17 JSTARS aircraft that the service says could be easily shot down by a near-peer adversary such as Russia or China. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Michael Battles

Under repeated questioning from Turner and Tsongas at a hearing in early March, Air Force Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris Jr., deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, acknowledged that the 2011 analysis “underestimated the pace of change in the threats” and officials needed to come up with a plan B.

Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.) reminded Air Force officials that soldiers and Marines could be endangered if JSTARS was removed from service. “And I hope you guys will really rethink this because we really cannot accept a gap and our capabilities until we have a replacement,” Kelly told Air Force leaders.
“We shouldn’t chase shiny objects until we have one that works,” he said. “We still have counterinsurgency fight going on and we can’t afford to just fight a peer fight, we have to fight them both.”

The JSTARS debate, meanwhile, has stirred speculation about the possibility of shifting missions to space. That has been attempted before, unsuccessfully. The Air Force in the late 1990s teamed up with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Reconnaissance Office to develop a constellation of radar remote-sensing satellites that would provide global coverage. The project was nixed in the 2000 budget.

Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA’s tactical technology office, said it was “probably a good idea to cancel it back then” because the technology was not mature. He said it might be worth revising the idea of deploying more radar sensors in space. “Now we have the communications infrastructure, the ground segment,” he told SpaceNews in a recent interview. “I simply have to plant sub-constellations into the network, the nodes that we want. [Radiofrequency] nodes, or optical sensing nodes,” he said. “I‘ll be able to use the resources of the space internet, the processing and storage. I don’t see why we couldn’t plant a node with a ground moving target indicator…I think we’re smart enough to figure out how to do it now.”

On how to replace JSTARS, he said, “there is certainly a possibility of moving that mission to space and doing the control segment somewhere. You would have global coverage as opposed to limited airborne coverage today.”

There are tradeoffs, however. “You have to give up some advantages of airborne platforms like having to look from thousands of kilometers away. It would be an interesting trade in terms of what kind of radar we build,” he said. “It might be interesting to do a demonstration of an RF mission of this class just to see if it can be done.”

John Johnson, former vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, said some of the JSTARS functions could be moved to space. “The Air Force and the [National Reconnaissance Office] should take a look at that,” he told SpaceNews.

Northrop Grumman is currently the prime contractor and systems integrator for JSTARS. For the recapitalization program that the Air Force wants to terminate, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are proposing business jet concepts, whereas Boeing pitched a 737-size platform. Contractors still plan to submit proposals should Congress keep the program alive over the objections of the Air Force.

“Recapitalization of programs is always contentious,” Johnson said. “It’s the competitive nature of the defense industry. There’s always somebody out there who says they have a better widget.”

As to what the Air Force is trying to do, “I applaud them,” Johnson said. “They are trying to eliminate singular mission platforms. What they are doing I think is the right thing: Put everything into an integrated architecture,” he said.

It will not be easy, though. “It will be really a struggle,” Johnson said.