Pentagon says ‘no, thanks’ to weapons system Congress insists it must have

Pentagon says ‘no, thanks’ to weapons system Congress insists it must have

The Air Force wants to invest in technologies that would allow existing assets like the E-3 Sentry AWACS, left, to do the missions currently accomplished by the E-8C Joint STARS, shown on the right. (Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Roger Parsons/U.S. Air National Guard)

WASHINGTON — It does happen. Now and then, a man bites a dog. And perhaps even more rarely, the Pentagon says “no, thanks” to a weapons system that Congress thinks is needed.

Yet that is happening right now. House and Senate negotiators are hashing out differences in their respective versions of the 2019 defense bill — including how much to spend on a “Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System” that the Air Force wants to move away from.

The E-8 JSTARS is an airborne ground surveillance, battle management and command and control aircraft, according to Air Force websites. It tracks ground vehicles and some aircraft, collects imagery, and relays tactical pictures to ground and air theater commanders, the Air Force says.

It is often confused with an AWACs system, which is a airborne radar system designed to detect aircraft, ships and vehicles at long ranges. It also is used to direct fighter and attack aircraft strikes, according to the Air Force.

JSTARS are operated by active-duty Air Force and Air National Guard units. Some JSTARS fly with specially trained U.S. Army personnel as additional flight crew.

The Air Force wants to cancel any flow of new JSTARS to replace the current fleet and instead move toward developing something new and more versatile. Congress has other ideas.

In its defense bill, the House wants to spend $623 million for a new JSTARS fleet. The Senate defense bill forbids retiring any active JSTAR aircraft, but supports funds for a replacement system.

But the disagreement goes somewhat deeper into the bureaucratic weeds, as one side says yes while the other side says no.

At one point, the Air Force mulled some sort of transition plan between the existing JSTARS fleet and a new platform — called the “Advanced Battle Management System” — that would upgrade and link together existing aircraft and drones. That new system would do all that JSTARS now does at a higher proficiency, as well as add abilities.

Under that plan, the Air Force would buy 17 new E-8C JSTARS so-called recap jets, giving those aircraft spiffy advanced, enhanced radar.

That changed in February. In announcing its 2019 preferences, the Air Force said it wanted to end the JTARS program and go straight to the Advanced Battle Management System. The Senate version of the 2019 defense bill includes $375 million to accelerate ABMS development with a plethora of technologies.

“All of the committees understand the need for moving to the advanced battle management system,” Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, told Pentagon reporters in June. “If there are disagreements between the committees, it’s about whether we can move straight to that and hold onto our legacy JSTARS as a way to bridge until we do that, or do we need to do one more recap of that system.”

The House and Senate negotiators hope to agree on what to do on JSTARS by the end of July, just before the beginning of the dog days of summer.

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