OMB Blasts House Proposal To Replace Air Force’s JSTARS Planes With New Aircraft

The Trump administration “objects” to a provision in the House version of the fiscal year 2019 defense authorization bill that would require the Air Force to replace its aging E-8C JSTARS ground-surveillance planes with new aircraft, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

In a May 22 statement of administration policy (SAP) on the wide-ranging bill, OMB echoed Air Force leaders who have argued that a JSTARS replacement would be shot down in a war with China or Russia. The Air Force would prefer to focus on developing an Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) that fuses threat information from various airborne and other sensors. 

An E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft. Photo: Air Force.

An E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft. Photo: Air Force.

“The JSTARS recapitalization program will be unable to perform its mission in high-end contested environments, which is counter to the national defense strategy,” OMB wrote. “As such, the administration strongly believes the JSTARS recapitalization program does not meet the needs of the warfighter across the full spectrum of conflict and that investing in ABMS is prudent and better postures DoD for the future warfighting environments.”

Congressional advocates of a new JSTARS insist it would still have an important role to play in future conflicts. They also doubt that the still-to-be-defined ABMS will be ready when the existing JSTARS is retired in the mid-2020s.

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s tactical air and land forces panel, said that “based on our analysis resulting from extensive committee oversight activity, we have concluded that completely walking away from [the JSTARS recap] program imposes an unprecedented level of risk to our warfighters.”

The Air Force has a fleet of 16 E-8Cs. Under the recap, the modified Boeing 707 jetliner would be replaced by a modified civil jet. The three recap competitors are Boeing [BA], Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Northrop Grumman [NOC].

Also in the nine-page SAP, OMB said it opposes the elimination of $222 million that the Air Force requested to replace its two OC-135B Open Skies Treaty (OST) observation aircraft. While lawmakers called the request “ahead of need,” OMB insisted that the Air Force will be ready to proceed with the procurement in FY 2019.

Budget documents show the Air Force plans to buy two “small airliner-class aircraft.” OMB said the new planes are urgently needed to replace the 1960s-era OC-135Bs.

“At present, the United States is not able to fully exercise its rights under the OST as some Open Skies airfields are not accessible to the current OC-135B aircraft,” OMB wrote.

OMB also criticized several space provisions in the bill. For example, it said a section aimed at improving the acquisition system, personnel and organization for space forces is “premature” because the Department of Defense is currently conducting a congressionally mandated review of its space management structure.

"Once complete, the administration will review these findings and deliver the required report and consult with Congress," OMB wrote.

The House Armed Services Committee approved the $717-billion bill May 10 (Defense Daily, May 10). The full House is debating the legislation this week and is expected to pass it May 24.

The Senate Armed Services Committee is considering its version of the bill this week in mostly closed-door sessions.

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