The JSTARS Challenge

An Air Force E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft takes off for an ISR mission in an unspecified location in Southwest Asia. USAF photo.

The Air Force’s Fiscal 2019 budget request killed the JSTARS recapitalization program and outlined instead a plan to upgrade seven E-3 AWACS aircraft and to keep the existing JSTARS operational until the mid-2020s, while the service works to piece together a network of sensors in multiple domains that can be more survivable in a contested environment.

Speaking at an AFA Mitchell Institute breakfast on Capitol Hill on Friday, Secretary Heather Wilson acknowledged this piecemeal approach can be more “difficult to understand and visualize,” but she said the service thinks it a much better option and will work with Congress to get them on board.

The idea for an advanced battle management center really came “from the realization that, particularly in China or a European scenario, JSTARS would not survive,” Wilson told reporters following the event. “Right now JSTARS is meeting less than five percent of combatant commander requirements.”

She noted than an MQ-9 can loiter for 22 hours and the service would be willing to “put that capability much closer to a threat” than it would the existing JSTARS aircraft. “We can keep them there for longer and at a lower price per sensor. Is there a different way to solve the problem,” she asked.

In a contested environment the problem becomes even more challenging, but Wilson said “inherently a network” that integrates multiple sensors from the air, space, ground, and sea is “more resilient than a single point platform.”

She said the service does not intend to have a prime contractor oversee multiple systems, emphasizing again, “it’s not a single platform, it’s about the network.”