NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Joint STARS recapitalization and a new T-X trainer are among the Air Force’s top five priorities, according to the service’s top official. 

“If I was building my fleet, the big five programs would be the three I started with (F-35, KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, new Long Range Bomber), and then it would be JSTARS…and T-X,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said yesterday at the Air Force Association’s (AFA) annual conference here. “That’s me talking. My boss (Acting Air Force Secretary Eric Fanning) might not agree with those last two, (but) that’s how I see it.” 

Joint STARS, formally know as the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, is an airborne command, control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C2ISR) platform for the Air Force’s air-to-ground battle management and surveillance operations, according to prime contractor Northrop Grumman [NOC]. The joint Army-Air Force platform provides long endurance, all-weather surveillance and targeting of moving and stationary targets. The E-8C is a modified Boeing [BA] 707-300 commercial airframe. 

Air Force Chief of Staff 
Gen. Mark Welsh

Welsh said the Air Force needs ground moving target indications, adding that type of intelligence has been “phenomenally successful.” All the combatant commanders want it, Welsh said. 

“How do we provide that at the best cost over time is a question we need to answer right now,” Welsh said. “So we’re willing to plan for that…We need to look at what a theater’s worth of ISR looks like from a combatant commander’s perspective..and how does the Air Force provide that?” 

Though he’s confident the T-38 will not “fall out of the sky,” Welsh said the Air Force needs a new trainer. Welsh said modifications to the current trainer, the T-38, have been very successful, but the trainer has to be replaced “eventually.” The eventual T-X trainer award is estimated to be around $30 billion. 

“As soon as we have the budget space to accelerate that program, we can accelerate it, not slip it,” Welsh said. 

Welsh also specifically emphasized the importance of keeping legacy aircraft viable against threats that will emerge over the “next five to 10 years.” An example could be the agreement announced yesterday between Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin [LMT] for Northrop Grumman to upgrade the Air Force’s F-16s with new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars. 

“But anything that isn’t required to keep them alive on the battlefield, if you want to look at it that way, we will probably defer because we have to defer,” Welsh said. “We have to cut costs.” 

Welsh earlier this summer set 2023 or 2024 as its target for getting a new trainer in the fleet, a goal 10 years later than the Air Force’s original goal of late 2013 or early 2014 for T-X. Boeing [BA] said in June it would bid for T-X while General Dynamics [GD] and Finmeccanica’s Alenia Aermacchi said they’d also team for T-X. Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace were said to offer Lockheed Martin’s T-50 (Defense Daily, June 18). Rolls-Royce last week said it was joining BAE Systems’ team for T-X, offering its Adour Mk951 engine.