The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) unveiled a fiscal year 2019 defense authorization bill April 25 that would require the Air Force to replace the E-8C JSTARS ground-surveillance aircraft with a new plane and speed up buying a successor to the EC-130H Compass Call electronic-attack aircraft.

The Air Force has argued that a new JSTARS aircraft, also known as the JSTARS recapitalization, would not be survivable in contested environments and that a better approach would be developing and fielding a new 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.

But HASC members concluded that a new JSTARS would still have an important role to play in future conflicts. They also have expressed doubt that the still-to-be-defined ABMS will be ready when the existing JSTARS is retired in the mid-2020s

The HASC bill would allow the ABMS effort to proceed but would freeze half of its funding until the Air Force awards a JSTARS recap contract.

“We’re allowing them to do both” programs, a HASC staffer told reporters.

Due to congressional opposition to its proposal, the Air Force said in February that it would continue reviewing industry bids for the replacement plane at least until the matter is resolved (Defense Daily, Feb. 13).

The three recap competitors are Boeing [BA], Lockheed Martin [LMT] and Northrop Grumman [NOC]. Under the recap, the aging E-8C, a modified Boeing 707 jetliner, would be replaced by a modified civil jet.

The HASC bill also would allow the Air Force to retire only one of the three JSTARS aircraft that the service proposed to sideline in FY 2019. The fate of the other two would depend on when the new aircraft is put under contract. According to committee staffers, lawmakers want to avoid significantly shrinking the existing 16-plane fleet without a follow-on program in place.

Lawmakers are also concerned that the Air Force’s plan to buy one new EC-37 Compass Call aircraft a year to replace the aging EC-130H is not economically efficient and may jeopardize the Compass Call mission. They would prefer to buy at least two planes a year, according to HASC aides, who noted that industry could build up up to four annually.

The EC-37 is a modified General Dynamics [GD] Gulfstream G550 business jet. The program, whose system integrator is L3 Technologies [LLL], underwent a preliminary design review in September (Defense Daily, Oct. 13).

The Air Force intends to buy 10 EC-37s to replace 14 Compass Calls, which disrupt enemy command-and-control communications. The first EC-37 is slated for delivery in late 2021.

The HASC’s subcommittees are slated to mark up the authorization bill April 26. The full committee is scheduled to consider the legislation May 9.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has not yet announced its markup schedule.