Rachel Karas, November 13, 2017, Inside Defense

The reconciled version of the fiscal year 2018 defense policy bill directs the Air Force to report its analysis of why the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System recapitalization program should be changed or canceled and its impact on the military, if the service plots a new direction for that effort in the FY-19 budget request.

Congress also requires the service to certify a new plan would not worsen capability or capacity gaps for battle management, command and control or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The bill is the first legislative response to the Air Force’s decision to revisit its acquisition strategy for the JSTARS recapitalization to determine whether to pursue a disaggregated network of ISR sensors rather than another aircraft dedicated to the same mission.

Lawmakers said they don’t understand why the Air Force is changing its tune after Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Air Combat Command chief Gen. Mike Holmes defended JSTARS at congressional hearings.

“The conferees are concerned by the Air Force’s reassessment of its current, validated JSTARS recapitalization program,” the conference report accompanying the bill said. “The acquisition program is currently in source selection and reconsideration at this late stage injects disruption and uncertainty into the process of updating and enhancing a vital combat capability that Congress has repeatedly urged the Air Force to accelerate.”

Authorizers granted the Air Force’s full FY-18 funding request of more than $417 million for JSTARS recapitalization in the conference bill, which appropriators still have to approve.

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s military deputy for acquisition, told industry at a Nov. 8 conference debate over how to proceed with the recapitalization is still ongoing and source selection will move forward, too. The service is in the process of issuing evaluation notices to bidders for more clarity on their proposals and determining a competitive range. If the Air Force continues its program of record, a $6.9 billion engineering and manufacturing development award is expected in March.

“The conferees look forward to hearing how the Air Force intends to provide the vitally important capabilities of airborne battle management, command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance that the current E-8 JSTARS provides our combatant commanders,” the conference report said. “Until then, the conferees expect the secretary of the Air Force to not take any actions that would adversely affect the JSTARS recap program.”

An amendment introduced by Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) in September remained in the conference bill as well. Perdue’s language blocks fiscal year 2018 funding from being used to retire JSTARS or to prepare for its retirement, unless the service secretary determines the aircraft can’t be flown because of mishaps, damage or because they would cost too much to repair.

“Our combatant commanders demand this unique capability and our troops on the ground rely on it as they carry out an array of missions,” Perdue said in a Nov. 9 press release. “The sharp turn away from the current recap plan conflicts with everything I’ve heard from the Air Force and combatant commanders. If the Air Force changes their mind, they’ll need to answer some serious questions about how to meet this need and any gaps we’ll see.”

When asked about FY-18 funding at a Nov. 9 “State of the Air Force” press briefing, Secretary Heather Wilson said buying “version 2.0” of JSTARS would result in the service meeting less than 1 percent of combatant commander requirements for intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance.

“It’s because we’re serious about it that we’re evaluating how we do it,” Wilson said. “In Iraq, there were probably 70 different airframes of one type or another — manned, unmanned, different services all in the air, coalition aircraft, American aircraft in and around that space. . . . All of them have radars, infrared seekers, they have all kinds of information-gathering sensors on them. Can we do this in a different way by fusing that data rather than relying on one aircraft?”

The service’s shifting perspective on how to provide moving target indicator capability and others offered by JSTARS and the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System will drive an FY-18 study of advanced battle management systems, overseen by Maj. Gen. Dwyer Dennis, the program executive officer for command, control, communications and networks at Hanscom Air Force Base, MA. Steve Wert, PEO for battle management whose portfolio includes the legacy JSTARS and AWACS fleets, told Inside Defense last week he is not involved in the ABMS study.

That analysis will plot how the Air Force approaches C2ISR and battle management in 2030 and beyond, after the current JSTARS aircraft run out of service life.