Since the mid-1980s, the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) has served as the Air Force’s premier battle management, command, and control platform. Built on old Boeing 707-300 series airframes, the JSTARS is capable of tracking moving ground targets over 20,000 square miles, helping identify enemy positons, as well as seabed targets. It remains the only battle management, command, and control system that can quickly communicate these threats to the warfighter and other Air Force platforms. Even with an average age of 46 years, the demand for JSTARS remains high, which will result in the 16-plane fleet surpassing 100,000 lifetime combat flying hours this summer.
The 707s that serve as the platform for JSTARS were over 30 years old and averaged 49,000 miles at the creation of the program, and the last two decades have worn heavily on the aircraft. As we approach the end of their service lives, these factors contribute to skyrocketing operations and maintenance costs and lead to frequent groundings that can sideline up to half of the fleet.
In spite of the urgent recapitalization need, the United States Air Force has major budgetary obstacles on the horizon. Over the next five years of budgetary planning, often called the Future Years’ Defense Plan, the Air Force will be juggling the F-35(A) Joint Strike Fighter, development of the new KC-46 tanker, and the recently awarded Long-Range Strike Bomber. Along with unmanned aircraft and cargo jet purchases, the Congressional Research Service estimates that these programs will cost $67.2 billion over the next 5 years. This cost will likely further increase once these programs reach full-rate production, stressing the importance of moving quickly on JSTARS, before competing programs that make the replacement more difficult. Failing to recapitalize the fleet creates an unfillable capability gap that would endanger our ground troops worldwide.
Three teams are ready to compete for the next generation the moment the Pentagon commits to the program. The Air Force has identified replacing JSTARS, rather than upgrading, as the lowest-risk and most cost-effective solution. The Chief of Staff of the Air Force also acknowledged that, “All the combatant commanders want it.” Still, the Pentagon has shown Congress no definitive plan to follow through.
Earlier this month, I joined colleagues from the House Armed Services and House Appropriations Committee in asking the Secretary of Defense for a commitment to the recapitalization as well providing us with a detailed plan. While we have been assured that the preliminary design review was fully funded, there has been no guarantee of the department’s commitment to procure a new generation of manned JSTARS. But, this is exactly what the Pacific Command told the Armed Services Committee is necessary.
As Congress exercises oversight authority over the Department of Defense, it is critical that we protect our strongest battlefield management assets and ensure that we are addressing the needs presented to Congress by the Combatant Commanders. We cannot allow a lengthy capability gap presented by the loss of one of our most heavily used air assets to endanger the lives of American troops. The recapitalization program has recently achieved an important milestone, allowing it pursue a Risk Reduction phase, and I believe the Department of Defense should continue to build on this progress and see that a new generation of JSTARS is secured in order to meet the needs of our troops.
Col. Paul Cook (Ret.) represents California’s 8th Congressional District and currently serves on the House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Natural Resources committees. He served in the United States Marine Corps for 26 years, earning two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star Medal with a V for Valor.