The head of a congressional defense subcommittee said March 6 that he intends to scrutinize the Air Force’s controversial plan to cancel its replacement for the aging E-8C JSTARS ground-surveillance aircraft.

“We’re going to take a look at it,” said Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC’s) tactical air and land forces panel. 

Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee
Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee

The Air Force recently concluded 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 (Defense Daily, Feb. 12).

But Turner said at a McAleese & Associates/Credit Suisse defense programs conference that he wants to ensure that the new Air Force approach does not result in a capability gap. Lawmakers from Georgia, which hosts the JSTARS fleet at Robins Air Force Base, have expressed doubt that the still-to-be-defined ABMS will be ready when JSTARS is retired in the mid-2020s (Defense Daily, Feb. 13).

In a recent briefing for lawmakers, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson compared her service’s approach to how the advent of smartphones now allows her travel to Capitol Hill by reserving an Uber ride instead of catching a cab.

“But I said taxis are still on the street,” Turner said. “What that means is that we have to have a smorgasbord of capabilities. Yes, we need to reach for that new technology, but if there’s a capability currently that is absolutely essential, then we have to make certain that it’s preserved. Probably what we’re going to do in our [fiscal year 2019 defense authorization] bill is try to find that balance of funding taxis and Uber when it comes to JSTARS and our need for that capability.”

The top Democrat on the HASC sounded less skeptical of the Air Force’s plan. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who also spoke at the McAleese conference, told Defense Daily that the Air Force’s proposal is “probably the right approach” due to budget constraints.

“If I’m going to stand up there and say that we can’t be in favor of spending money on everything, I can’t then scream at them when they try to save money somewhere,” Smith said. “Which is not to say that recap for JSTARS isn’t important. It’s just that we have a finite amount of resources.”