The future of the Air Force's Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System recapitalization program is clouded as the service embarks on an analysis of alternatives. Technological, operational and budgetary considerations could lead to a wide range of possible outcomes, analysts said.
E-8C JSTARS aircraft and equipment provide critical battle management, command and control, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that help the U.S. military locate, track and destroy enemy ground targets.
However, legacy platforms are aging and the Air Force planned to replace them with a follow-on system through the JSTARS recapitalization program. But now the service is thinking about moving in a different direction.
"Our advanced battle management system [analysis of alternatives] which begins this fall... is really looking at the contested environment out in the future," said Air Combat Command Commander Gen. Mike Holmes.
"The question is, should we recap [JSTARS]... or not?" he said during a meeting with reporters at the Air Force Association's Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the service would look at the feasibility and merits of relying on a more distributed sensor and communications architecture. The U.S. military could potentially fuse sensor data from drones and other aircraft such as fifth-generation fighters, as well as space-based, ground-based and sea-based assets, to accomplish the mission, she said.
"What we're trying to evaluate today very quickly is, can we do it in a new way? What time would it take, and what are the pieces that we have to put together?" she said at the Women in Defense National Conference in Washington, D.C. The organization, also known as WID, is an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association.
"The question is... can we do it fast enough, and does it give us more capability if we do it that way rather than just do, you know, version 2.0 of what we designed in 1991?" she added.
The service hoped to complete the analysis by the end of October, Wilson said.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is currently in the source selection process for the engineering and manufacturing development phase of the recap program. A decision is expected in fiscal year 2018.
Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said it makes sense for the Air Force to review its options now.
"If you're going to look at alternatives, now is the time before you get knee deep into a new program," he said.
Concerns about the survivability of a JSTARS-type platform--which is a modified civilian aircraft--are driving the decision to rethink the path forward, officials...