The U.S. Air Force is dropping plans to build a new ground-surveillance aircraft, opting instead to begin developing an advanced battle management system that can fuse threat information from various new and existing sensors to provide a comprehensive view of the battlespace.

Air Force Undersecretary Matthew Donovan said the service’s $156.3-billion fiscal year 2019 budget request, unveiled Feb. 12, contains no money to replace the aging E-8C JSTARS ground-surveillance aircraft with a modified civil jet. Rather, the budget focuses on the new battle management system. 

The E-8C JSTARS. (Air Force photo)
The E-8C JSTARS. (Air Force photo)

Potential adversaries are fielding advanced air defenses, prompting the Air Force to focus more on creating secure information networks and less on acquiring aircraft that will not survive in contested environments.

The Air Force envisions that the new battle management system will be fielded in three increments and will integrate data from air-, ground-, sea- and space-based sensors.

“It’s all about the networks,” Donovan said at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “The key on this is really going to be advanced data links and network connectivity. It’s not necessarily a new airplane; it’s sort of pulling it all together in a different way.”

Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for budget, said later at a Pentagon press briefing that the first increment might involve adding existing sensors to additional aircraft, such as the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper. The second and third increments are still being defined.

Boeing [BA], Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Northrop Grumman [NOC] have been vying to provide the JSTARS replacement. But the Air Force revealed in September that it had begun exploring whether a different approach might be more effective in highly contested environments (Defense Daily, Sept. 12, 2017).

The Air Force’s decision drew criticism from congressional advocates of a JSTARS replacement.

“Not only have taxpayers already spent more than $600 million on the recapitalization of this vital intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform, but most importantly, our warfighters need the capabilities it provides today,” Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said in a statement. “I am not confident in the proposed Air Force strategy of intelligence collection through various platforms that would require significant investments in network infrastructure when its own F-22, one of the most advanced fighter aircraft in the world, has difficulties transmitting data to other platforms.”

The Air Force also announced plans to re-engine the aging B-52 bomber to keep it in service until 2050. The Air Force wants to begin retiring its other two bombers, the B-1 and B-2, when it starts fielding the new Northrop Grumman-built B-21 in the mid-2020s.

Donovan said the stealthy B-21 will meet the need for a penetrating bomber, while the B-52 will serve as a standoff bomber that uses munitions to do penetration.

“The B-52 is great standoff platform,” the former F-15 pilot said. “It can carry a lot of weapons.”

The budget provides $2.3 billion for the B-21’s continued development, up from the Air Force’s $2 billion request in FY 2018. The program completed a preliminary design review in early 2017 and will undergo its next major design review in FY 2019.

The Air Force budget calls for buying 48 F-35A Lightning IIs and 15 KC-46A tankers and starting procurement of the HH-60W Combat Rescue Helicopter. Upgrades to the F-22, F-15 and F-16 would continue.

The budget also supports the selection of prime contractors for the T-X trainer aircraft program and the UH-1N Huey helicopter replacement program.

For space, the budget would forego buying the seventh and eighth Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile-warning satellites in favor of developing a new, more survivable Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared System. It would also fund five Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles.

The Air Force seeks an 8 percent increase in overall space funding and a 33 percent increase in space research and development.