Senator David Perdue: JSTARS Critical To Countering Global Threats

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator David Perdue (R-GA) today highlighted the importance of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) program.

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“Today, I rise to speak about how this overlap between our debt crisis and our global security crisis and how it impacts the future of a vital Air Force asset: the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System or JSTARS, as they call them.

I just visited with Team JSTARS to hear about their critical role. We made a visit and talked about how their role effects our national security and national defense and countering the growing global security crisis we face. I’ve also seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, first hand, how this platform is absolutely vital to protect our forces on the ground in harm’s way.

The global security crisis facing our nation continues to grow. First, we face traditional rivals, China and Russia, as they become ever more aggressive. The persistent threat of nuclear proliferation is now exaggerated and increasing every day with Iran’s efforts, and of course, we see what’s going on in North Korea as well.

Finally, we face threats from radical jihadist terror groups—not just in the Middle East but here at home, unfortunately—and not just from ISIS—AQAP, Boko Haram, and al Shabaab, just to mention a few, are all thinking about how to do harm here in our homeland.

As a result, we know that the need for American leadership in the world isn’t going to go away any time soon. Team JSTARS plays a critical role in our response to these threats.

JSTARS is an Air Force platform that provides critical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or as they call it ISR, and ground targeting capabilities in service to all branches of our military. Over the past 25 years, they have flown over 125,000 combat hours to 5 different combatant commands. As a matter of fact, they’ve flown every day since 9/11.

The ‘J’ in JSTARS stands for joint. Team JSTARS is a blended unit. The Air Force, Army, and National guardsmen who work on the team eat, sleep, and deploy together. These men and women leave for days, weeks, and sometimes they deploy for months to protect those in uniform around the world. Not only are they a joint mission with the Army, but JSTARS also does several mission sets.

JSTARS does command and control as well as providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. From stakeout to shootout, JSTARS is capable of supporting all missions in all phases, with full spectrum capability from low to high-intensity conflict.

In the words of General Kelly, SOUTHCOM’s commander, JSTARS is quite unique and quote, ‘a true force-multiplier, working seamlessly with both the DOD and interagency assets, generating impressive results in our asset-austere environment.’

What makes JSTARS unique from other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, is that on each JSTARS plane we have unique manpower at the tactical edge to talk to our service members on the ground with 22 radios, 7 datalinks, 3 internets, and a secure telephone.

These are things we cannot take for granted. Our men and women on the ground talk about this incessantly. As I saw in Iraq and Afghanistan, we could not fulfill our mission without this type of capability, in the air, overseeing our men and women every day.

As we see threats around us, from an increasingly aggressive Russia and China, the threat of electronic warfare is a growing concern. If satellite communication radios are targeted, if these systems are degraded by the enemy in any way, JSTARS can in-turn provide this same critical capability in theater. This is a reconnaissance capability we cannot do without.

This platform has proven itself to be invaluable and indispensable to our armed forces—not just in the Air Force and Army, but in every service—the Marines, the Navy, Coast Guard, and even in some counter-drug missions.

In the Pacific, JSTARS has been a key part of the Asia Rebalance, helping to maintain stability and assure allies by providing vital insight to maritime forces as they push back against an expansive China.

In fact, as China continues to challenge freedom of navigation and asserts itself in the Asia Pacific region, PACOM is asking for more and more JSTARS presence, at a very time when their capability is declining.

Also in Asia, US Forces Korea commander Gen. Scaparotti calls JSTARS ‘very important to us’ as he deters an unpredictable North Korea. And here in this hemisphere, JSTARS has flown in support of homeland defense, doing drug interdiction missions.

As General John Kelly, the SOUTHCOM commander has said, ‘JSTARS is especially important, providing a detailed maritime surveillance capability that is unsurpassed.’

To give you a comparison, a single JSTARS sortie, a single plane, can cover the same search area as 10 maritime patrol aircraft sorties. But the future of this platform is in jeopardy.

As threats against our nation have evolved, JSTARS has too but there are only 16 of these planes covering our needs worldwide over the last 25 years—16 planes. We have relied on JSTARS for 25 years to protect our men and women who we put in harm’s way—to protect them while other people are trying to do them harm. Unfortunately, in the last 25 years, these planes are beginning to wear out. They are reaching the end of their service life.

These planes have been in service since the early 90s. But even then, these planes weren’t new when the Air Force acquired them. Each plane on average had over 50,000 hours when we bought them. The average age of the fleet is 47 years.

If you look at just one example in the JSTARS fleet, there is one aircraft that had 16 different owners or lessors before it became a JSTARS, including Pakistani International Airlines and Afghan Airlines. I think it’s very ironic that today that very plane flies oversight missions over those two countries.

As these planes near the end of their service life, they are spending more and more time in depot maintenance. And more maintenance, is more costly. Dramatically increased maintenance time is threatening aircraft availability and mission readiness. This in turn impacts the number of JSTARS that can be put into mission at any one time and be out in the combatant commands doing their job, while day by day, the demand from Combatant Commanders for JSTARS grows.

What’s more concerning is that as JSTARS near the end of their service life –as you can see on this chart—there’s a gap. If we do nothing, we will have a gap of 10 years. The best we can do, starting today, is shorten that gap to four years. This is a gap we cannot allow to happen.

This chart shows the declining availability of the current fleet down to zero by 2023. It also shows that under the current plan—pending DOD approval and funding--the replacement fleet doesn’t even start to come online until 2023.

Meaning, we will have a 10 year gap. They don’t get back to full strength around 2027, again the 10 year gap.

Due to the increased maintenance requirements of this aging fleet, JSTARS is already at a point where we only have about half the fleet available to fly at any point in time. Even if we extend the service life of JSTARS and accelerate the replacement, we can only narrow the gap to four years.

This is unacceptable.

I’ve talked about the planes. Let me talk about the men and women who man those planes, who service those planes, who keep those planes in the air.

These are talented professionals. I have met with them. They are dedicated professionals, protecting our soldiers on the ground. They are committed to this mission but they have to have our help. The men and women on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world deserve our help. But when it happens to have a gap like this, our irresponsibility as a Congress and as military leadership, shows up. We cannot allow this to happen.

Recapitalization for the JSTARS fleet needs to happen, and it needs to happen right now. As these aircraft age, depot maintenance is not only more costly, but also keeps these aircraft—which are in high demand from every combatant commander—from fulfilling their mission fully, and this puts our soldiers on the ground in mortal danger.

This is precisely where we see our debt crisis and our global security crisis intersect.

In the last 6 years, I’ve spoken about this before, we’ve borrowed 40 percent of what we’ve spent as a federal government. This puts in jeopardy our ability to support a strong foreign policy backed up by a strong military. As Admiral Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once said the greatest threat to our national security is our own federal debt.

The JSTARS program is an example of how our debt crisis is impacting our ability to fulfill our mission requirements. JSTARS recapitalization, which would replace these planes over time, is the number four priority within the Air Force. The other three priorities ahead of it are very valid, but very expensive platforms.

Just last month, the Air Force’s acquisition chief, Assistant Secretary LaPlante said that the JSTARS recap might get scrapped thanks to sequester and a tight budget constraints.

Again, this is a direct result of our fiscal intransigence and poor planning by military leaders. This prohibits us from meeting the very basic needs of our men and women on the ground who depend on this critical platform to protect them and provide overarching eyes and ears in the battlespace. This should not have happened. The intransigence of Congress over the last decade, the intransigence of our military leadership, and procurement planning are all at fault.

We can fix this.

This week, I’m joining Senator Isakson and at least 11 other senators in writing to Secretary Carter about the importance of funding for the next fleet of JSTARS in next year’s budget request.

I’d like to thank the Defense appropriators, as well as the Armed Services Committee, for their support for this critical platform and mission. And, I look forward to continuing to work with them to support JSTARS.

Not only do we need to ensure the new JSTARS fleet is funded, but this needs to be done fast. As I said, if we do nothing today, we have at best a four year gap. Not to mention the problem with the planes. What do we do with these professional military men and women that are irreplaceable? Pilots, navigators, engineers, technicians, mechanics, schedulers, computer experts. This is capability we cannot do without.

Not only do we need to ensure the new JSTARS fleet is funded but this has to happen, again, immediately if we are going to eliminate this gap, or manage this gap. This gap in capability that you see right here on this chart will become a reality if the pace of recap doesn’t change.

We need a faster solution. This chart shows chart shows just why this recap needs to be a rapid acquisition program, and we need to get on that immediately.

We need to ensure that this critical platform stays in the theater. Our combatant commanders demand it, and our troops on the ground depend on it—and certainly they deserve it.

We cannot allow Washington’s dysfunction to put our men and women in combat theaters in further danger. This needs to get fixed and it needs to get fixed right now.”