By Loren Thompson, October 02, 2017, Real Clear Defense
Beguiled by the latest thinking about “multi-domain” combat, the Air Force has launched an 11th-hour rethink of its plan to replace aging radar planes used for tracking and imaging moving ground targets. Called the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-Stars), the 16-plane fleet of heavily modified Boeing 707s has become a fixture in joint warfighting plans since it debuted in Operation Desert Storm a quarter-century ago.
After conducting multiple reviews of how best to replace the increasingly decrepit planes, the Air Force seemed to have settled on a recapitalization plan using business jets. It said it needed the replacements to become operational by 2021 to avoid a gap in surveillance capabilities as the existing fleet becomes harder to maintain. But then, out of the blue, it disclosed in late summer it was revisiting that plan due to fears about survivability in future high-intensity combat.
That’s an odd concern to suddenly surface in an organization that is also contemplating whether to revive turboprop (propeller-driven) aircraft for use in counter-insurgency campaigns. The Air Force also says it has discovered the aging radar planes might be able to operate until 2030, rather than requiring urgent replacement. So it has assembled a team to consider what alternative to the current plan might be pursued during the intervening years.
This is a dangerous idea. It will probably jeopardize a critical warfighting capability without fielding a workable alternative. What little the service has said in public points to a distributed network of manned and unmanned sensors that would integrate threat indications on the ground rather than onboard planes as the current J-Stars system does. The concept is so problematic that it demands a careful review by Congress. Here are five reasons why.
J-Stars is a unique capability. No other country in the world has a surveillance system that can simultaneously track and image hundreds of moving ground targets through haze, smoke, clouds, dust or the dead of night. J-Stars has proven invaluable in determining the size, location, direction of movement and speed of hostile ground forces — even in raging sandstorms or tropical monsoons. The Army depends on it to bolster the survivability of soldiers in combat, and the Air Force relies on it for precise targeting information.
Aging planes are hard to keep airworthy. The current fleet of 16 707s had already been operated for decades by commercial carriers before the Air Force modified them in the 1990s. The fleet is plagued by metal fatigue, corrosion and parts obsolescence. Because of the way they were acquired, each plane is different. On average, 6-8 of the planes are unavailable at any given time due to maintenance and other issues. The prediction they can be safely or affordably operated through 2030 is thus highly suspect.
Alternatives don’t actually exist. Netting together sensors from aircraft designed for other purposes would be horrendously complicated. The Air Force cannot rely on stealthy fighters to perform surveillance because that requires radar emissions that would reveal plane locations. Most drones are too small to provide the necessary power or apertures for ground-tracking radars and have survivability issues of their own. It would take decades to field a functioning alternative to dedicated radar planes.
Aborting current plans will cost money, not save it. The current J-Stars fleet requires so much fuel and maintenance to stay in the air that it would cost less to develop and field replacement planes. That’s why the Air Force passed up the opportunity to install new engines on the aged planes. If the J-Stars fleet has to be kept flying through 2030 at the same time an alternative approach to tracking moving ground targets is being developed, that will drain a huge amount of money out of other programs.
Other planes have survivability issues too. The Air Force is right to be concerned about aircraft survivability in future conflicts, but a fleet of business jets equipped for standoff tracking of surface targets is likely to fare better in high-end warfare than drones. Aside from the fact that it would take half a dozen of the Air Force’s biggest drones to match the surveillance capabilities of one J-Stars plane, drones have virtually no onboard defenses and cannot operate for long if their wireless links to remote pilots are jammed or otherwise degraded.
The bottom line is simply this: if the Air Force abandons its current plan to recapitalize the J-Stars force, the capability will gradually be lost, and numerous U.S. warfighters will likely die as a result. First, the service will discover that it is harder than expected to keep its decrepit fleet of radar planes in the air; then it will discover that netting together a disaggregated collection of sensor systems is really hard (not to mention expensive). Despite all the money that will be spent, a vital warfighting capability will disappear because planners were too impressed with a new idea