Congress Deals Potential Death Blow to JSTARS Recap
The Senate on Aug. 1 put what could prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the recapitalization of the joint surveillance target attack radar system aircraft when it passed the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.
The legislation, which authorized $717 billion for defense spending, passed by a wide margin, 87-10. Last week the House passed the same bill by a vote of 359-54.
The legacy JSTARS capability helps the U.S. military track ground targets and assists with battle management. The Air Force had planned to buy 17 new airplanes to recapitalize the fleet at an estimated cost of $6.9 billion. Northrop Grumman, Boeing and Lockheed Martin were pursuing the contract award.
However, in its fiscal year 2019 budget request the Air Force called for scrapping the recap and instead developing an “advanced battle management system,” or ABMS, that officials believe would be more effective and survivable in warfare against advanced adversaries.
“JSTARS is going to have a hard time being able to get close [to the fight] and stay close enough to be effective,” Gen. James “Mike” Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command, said during a meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C., before the final NDAA was passed.
“We think we can spend that [modernization] money more wisely by getting to an ability to find ground targets all over the world all the time, by linking the things that we have together and by acquiring new things that we would link together,” he added.
Lawmakers had been divided about how to proceed. An earlier House version of the NDAA called for moving forward with the recap, while an earlier Senate version had embraced the idea of defunding the project and putting more money toward the advanced battle management concept.
In July, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, told reporters that the service was continuing source selection and was on track to award a contract for the JSTARS recap “as soon as possible” if Congress had forced its hand.
But Senate authorizers ultimately won out during negotiations over compromise legislation. The NDAA conference report that emerged from talks between the two congressional chambers in late July zeroed out funding for the JSTARS recapitalization aside from the $30 million authorized for the ground moving target indicator radar.
Now that the House and Senate have passed the compromise bill, the legislation will become law once President Donald Trump signs it.
“Zeroing it out for one year is the end of the [recap] program as it was originally conceived,” said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
However, “it’s still not certain that Congress will go along with the approach that the Air Force has proposed” for the long-term development of the ABMS architecture, he added. “We’ll have to wait and see about that, but I think the straight recap that had been the program of record … is dead and gone.”
The House and Senate have yet to pass a joint defense appropriations bill for 2019, so lawmakers could potentially end up putting money toward the recap, he noted.
Appropriators ultimately decide what gets funded and what doesn’t, Harrison said, but it’s unlikely that they would defy the authorization committees in this situation.
“In most cases what will happen is that the appropriators will go along with the big policy decisions made in the NDAA, so in all likelihood the appropriators won’t put any money toward this,” he said.
Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, said the possibility of some sort of JSTARS recap can’t be written off completely.
Calling recent congressional action the “death knell” for the effort “might be a little too strong only because there’s an awful lot we don’t know about ABMS” increments one, two and three, the scope of which has not been publicly disclosed, he said.
The architectures might take a lot longer than expected to develop and not be ready when the useful life of the current JSTARS ends, he noted.
The NDAA keeps the current JSTARS fleet flying while authorizing more funding for advanced battle management system capabilities. “It seems to be a compromise that satisfies most people involved,” Aboulafia said.
However, it’s unlikely that Congress will change its mind and pursue a full-fledged JSTARS recap in the future, he said. “It would take a complete misfire of the ABMS, but as it is currently configured it looks like it’s dead.”