Real Clear Defense: Swift Action Needed To Recapitalize Vital Fleet

Operating out of a single base in Georgia is a small fleet of 16 aircraft that plays a vital role in supporting our country’s national security objectives. This fleet, the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), has flown over 125,000 combat hours in support of U.S. joint forces deployed in five different geographical combatant command areas of responsibility. But, the future of JSTARS depends on the Pentagon’s willingness to fully support the fleet’s recapitalization.

Originally developed in concert with the Army, JSTARS is an Air Force platform that provides critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), ground targeting, and battlefield command and control capabilities to all branches of our military in multiple regions of the world.

In the Middle East, the fleet performs skillfully in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. The team bolstered North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations in the Balkans and Libya. And, in the Pacific, JSTARS is a key part of the Asia Rebalance and efforts to deter an unpredictable North Korea. As China grows more aggressive, the U.S. Pacific Command has requested more JSTARS presence. Here in this hemisphere, JSTARS supports our homeland defense along with flying drug interdiction missions against targets originating in South and Central America. 

Across the globe, our combatant commanders have a constant demand for JSTARS capabilities and it’s easy to see why. 

The fleet is unique from other ISR platforms in that it provides a highly accurate picture of moving targets on the ground and possesses an on-board capability to provide real-time command and control to coalition forces operating on and above the battlefield. Each JSTARS plane has decision makers on board at the tactical edge in addition to 22 radios, 7 datalinks, 3 internets, and a secure telephone to communicate with our service members on the ground. The ability to see, communicate, and direct the fight has been pivotal to success in operations around the world.  

As General Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command has said, JSTARS is “a true force-multiplier, working seamlessly with both DOD and interagency assets, generating impressive results in our asset-austere environment.” Clearly, this is a capability we cannot do without. 

Team JSTARS, the women and men who fly and support these planes, are a blended unit of the Air Force, Army, and National Guard headquartered at Robins Air Force Base. 

We have visited the base and met with the outstanding personnel of Team JSTARS to better understand their critical national defense role. The message we heard from Team JSTARS was simple: the joint forces need additional JSTARS presence, but they struggle to meet that demand because the aircraft are just not available. 

The fault lies primarily with the age of the aircraft. The JSTARS mission equipment was mounted on previously-used Boeing 707 airframes. At the time the Air Force procured these planes in the early 1990s, each had already flown an average of 50,000 hours, and the mean age of the fleet was 47 years. It is difficult – and expensive – to keep old airplanes in flying condition, and the maintenance burdens often reduce the JSTARS fleet by half.  

While the Air Force has stated that JSTARS recapitalization is its number four priority for acquisition, the recapitalization plan faces imminent challenges that place this critical mission in jeopardy. 

The first challenge is providing uninterrupted support to the Combatant Commanders. As the existing E-8 JSTARS aircraft reach the end of their service life, the Air Force may be forced to retire them before replacements reach operational capacity. 

The second challenge is to accelerate the JSTARS recapitalization program. Due to poor planning and budget constraints, the acquisition program to recapitalize the JSTARS mission set—originally planned as a six-year, non-developmental acquisition program—has been extended to at least 12 years. Not only will this increase the cost of the replacement aircraft, but more disturbingly it will create a 10-year gap of reduced JSTARS fleet size. 

This capability gap is an example of how our debt crisis is directly impacting our ability to fulfill our global security needs. Clearly, recapitalization for the JSTARS fleet needs to happen now to ensure that this platform is ready to go for our warfighters in multiple theaters. 

We will keep working to get a replacement fleet fully funded and on time, so this potential gap in service is eliminated or at the very least, reduced to an absolute minimum. Our combatant commanders demand it, and our joint forces depend on it.

U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., is chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs in the 114th Congress and is a veteran himself - having served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972. Isakson’s home state of Georgia is home to more than a dozen military installations representing each branch of the military as well as more than 750,000 veterans.

U.S. Senator David Perdue, R-Ga., is the junior senator from Georgia and serves on the Senate Budget, Foreign Relations, Agriculture, and Judiciary Committees. Previously, Senator Perdue was the CEO of Reebok Brand and Dollar General. Senator Perdue is currently the only Fortune 500 CEO serving in the United States Senate.

By:  Senators David Perdue and Johnny Isakson
Source: Real Clear Defense