The United States Congress and the Air Force are trying to decide what to do with the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, known as JSTARS, mission, which is based solely out of Robins Air Force Base.
The Base says the JSTARS aircraft and crews have been serving continuous deployments to combat areas since 9/11. The 116th Air Control Wing and Georgia Air National Guard own the 16 aircraft.
2,460 Active Duty, and Georgia Air National Guard airmen and women operate the JSTARS. That number does not include the civilians that work on the aircraft or support systems at Robins Air Force Base.
Overall, the JSTARS alone account for $195 million in economic impact for Central Georgia, according to the 116th’s Public Affairs information.
But now, the mission’s future is being debated in the halls of Washington D.C.
Air Force leaders and JSTARS advocates are at odds about continuing the program.
Director of Strategy for the 21st Century Partnership, Daniel Rhoades, explained the Air Force's argument.
“Weapons systems that they currently have and future weapons systems would be able to provide some or all of the capability,” Rhoades explained in his office on Wednesday.
Rhoades and other JSTARS supporters say they don't think that's the case. They support replacing the JSTARS equipment with a new weapons system and aircraft, otherwise known as recapitalization, instead of discontinuing the mission entirely. Not only that, they don’t want JSTARS to cease operations until replacement equipment and technology is fully in place and ready to go.
Rhoades says it would take 6 to 8 Global Hawk unmanned aircraft to cover the same area a JSTARS aircraft can on its own, the Air Force only has 11 Global Hawks.
He also said plans to install the radar equipment on F-35s would distract from the F-35s other missions as a jet fighter.
So far, recapitalization efforts have garnered $750 million, if Fiscal Year 2018’s defense bill goes through. Rhoades says Boeing, Bombardier, and GulfStream are leading the effort to be the company to replace the current aircraft.
JSTARS provides combat surveillance and can talk directly to commanders in the field. The planes and crews of sometimes up to 22 people are also able to track 200 enemies at a time and cover an area of 20,000 square miles.
“It is out there saving lives, it is out there providing persistent coverage and giving commanders the actionable information that they need to fight the war. To pull it out now, without something to replace it does a disservice to our troops in the field,” Rhoades said.
He’s not the only one stressing the mission’s importance.
Georgia’s two United States Senators are also pushing legislation to protect JSTARS.
“I have been working for years to ensure the JSTARS program is recapitalized. It has proven itself indispensable in our campaign to defeat ISIL, in counter-terrorism operations, and even during recent hurricane disaster responses. That’s why I included an amendment in the most recent National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the Senate in September, that would prevent the Air Force from prematurely retiring the JSTARS fleet and require that it move forward with plans to recapitalize that critical intelligence platform. I will continue working to help ensure this critical fleet receives needed support from Congress,” said Republican Senator Johnny Isakson.
“Make no mistake, our military needs to have cutting edge platforms and equipment to use in combat today and in the future. Today, JSTARS is our nation’s premier Battle Management, Command and Control (BMC2) asset used in theater. In fact, right now, the Air Force does not have another asset that can sufficiently replace JSTARS capabilities. It's extremely concerning that the Air Force is considering ending this critical program without a plan to avoid a potential extended capability gap,” said Republican Senator David Perdue.
The two Senator’s press office’s said the two were able to put a provision on the National Defense Authorization Act to prevent 2018’s funds from being used to prematurely shut down JSTARS.
On Wednesday, Senator Perdue’s office said he was in a conference meeting to settle the differences between the House and Senate’s DAA’s. Perdue’s staff say they expect a new combined bill to come out of conference for a Congressional vote after Thanksgiving of this year.
In September, the two, along with U.S. Representatives Austin Scott, Sanford Bishop, and Tom Graves, sent a letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis to express their support for the program.
The letter says in part:
“While the rationale for this decision has not been made known to us, cancelling or delaying would be ill-advised and directly impact our combatant commanders who employ this asset in theater. There is no alternative for JSTARS and indicators of its retirement are unacceptable. Without this capability, we greatly diminish our nation’s airpower and reduce our combat strength.”
The letter also points out ongoing JSTARS operations in anti-drug operations, combat zones, and in Africa.
At the end of the letter, the group reiterates their pressure on the Air Force to recapitalize the mission quickly and to support JSTARS.
Senior Advisor to the 21st Century Partnership, Chrissy Miner, says their allies in Congress and at the state and local government levels have done excellent work to support JSTARS.
She also says the mission is important to the entire area, not just Warner Robins.
“With 3,000 jobs to the economy of Middle Georgia, and not only that, it's the only active duty flying mission that we have at Robins Air Force Base, so from a national defense perspective, it's critically important, and from a Middle Georgia perspective, it's critically important,” Miner said on Wednesday.
Rhoades agreed, saying other existing weapons systems in the Air Force would not be able to do the work JSTARS does by themselves.
Lastly, he expressed concern that it would reduce the speed in which combat commanders would get valuable, and potentially life-saving, combat information if it were spread over multiple aircraft and weapons systems.
The debate will spark again in February, after President Donald Trump announces his Fiscal Year 2019 Budget proposal. After that, Rhoades says the Air Force will make its intentions known to either continue to fund or pull funding from recapitalization efforts.