USAF Considers Networking, Not Recapping, Aging ISR Planes

A USAF E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System receives fuel from a 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron KC-135 Stratotanker during a flight in support of Operation Inherent Resolve on Aug. 2, 2017. Air Force photo by SSgt. Michael Battles.

Legacy big-wing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance planes like the RC-135 variants could go the same way as the E-8C Joint STARS, which the Air Force is replacing with a network of sensors and satellites instead of a dedicated jet.

“The same work that we’re doing in Advanced Battle Management System, as we look at what the replacement for Joint STARS is going to be, we’re looking at all of these capabilities—the ones that right now are more platform-centric,” Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) when asked about reconnaissance fleet funding at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.

Goldfein also pointed to the idea of a “family of systems” like ABMS when Rep. Paul Cook (R-Calif.) asked whether the Air Force is assessing the airborne warning and control capabilities of Australia’s E-7A Wedgetails versus American E-3s. Settling on a lower defense budget than proposed for fiscal 2020 would jeopardize the service’s ability to pursue those networks, he told lawmakers.

The Air Force canceled its multibillion-dollar JSTARS recapitalization program last year due to concerns that a new fleet of non-stealthy battle-management jets would be shot down by other advanced militaries. Instead, the service decided on a disaggregate battle-management capability so that if one part of the network is taken out, the military wouldn’t lose that information entirely.

But the move prompted the question of what may happen to similar platforms used for missions like electromagnetic spectrum ISR, airborne warning and control, and more. In particular, much of the fleets based on the C-135, like the Rivet Joint, Cobra Ball, and Combat Sent, are expected to fly through 2050.

The Air Force says those aging planes are safe and effective despite facing mechanical failures, including hydraulic leaks, landing gear issues, and electrical problems, as well as cracked windows and burning engines that were chronicled in an Omaha World-Herald investigation last year.

Instead of recapitalizing parts of the C-135 fleets as Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson suggested could happen in the next several decades, the service could instead incorporate their missions into a distributed, survivable network as part of a revamped portfolio of command-and-control, battle-management, and ISR assets.

“It was a significant move for the Air Force to shift from a platform solution on command and control and battle management to a network solution going forward,” Goldfein said. “Our future in the business of joint warfighting is to ensure that we’re taking every sensor and every shooter and connecting them together … to overwhelm an adversary.”