The Department of Defense faces many challenges including an increasingly unpredictable geopolitical environment, continuing fiscal constraints, and the need to be able to respond quickly and decisively to threats to our national security. The USAF is similarly influenced by these factors as it develops its budget and plans the force structure and weapon systems needed to meet national defense needs.
One weapon system that is high on the USAF priority list is the fielding of the next generation Battle Management, Command and Control (BMC2) and Ground Moving Target Indications (GMTI) system called the Joint STARS Recapitalization or JSTARS Recap. The BMC2/GMTI mission is in high-demand from the Combatant Commands (COCOMs) because of the need for forward deployed BMC2/GMTI capability to support operational needs.
The JSTARS Recap mission is complex, requiring the ability to track hundreds to thousands of targets simultaneously and provide air, sea and ground forces with accurate battlefield intelligence. Being able to Find, Fix, Track, Target and Assess (F2T2A) enemy movements is an area where the USAF has provided an advantage to our forces with the E-8 Joint STARS.
The E-8 Joint STARS weapon system, built more than 30 years ago, continues to meet this challenge. The original Joint STARS completed its original Development and Operational tests during “Desert Storm” in 1991 and has been deployed in every crisis since then providing invaluable BMC2/GMTI support to COCOMs worldwide. During that period, the E-8 fleet surpassed one-million flight hours with more than 200,000 hours supporting combat operations.
The E-8C flight rate is three-times what was expected when the aircraft was delivered to the USAF. This high utilization rate and the age of the aircraft has made maintenance and sustainment increasingly expensive, which led the USAF to seek replacement with a more cost-effective and capable medium-size business jet solution that provides at least equal or better mission effectiveness.
Recent articles have focused significant attention on the different aircraft in the competition but little on the mission effectiveness of the primary mission system or the cost of operating the different platforms—the most important elements of this Recap program. Additionally, there has been talk of the potential benefits of commonality. Commonality has merit, but there is clearly more to be gained from mission equipment commonality (10 operators) than aircraft commonality (2 pilots).
The Air Force’s stated goal for this program is to save operations and maintenance costs for the Ground BMC2/Surveillance mission, reduce personnel cost by leveraging technology to conduct the mission with a crew of ten operators, and improve mission performance through use of new technologies. If history repeats itself, electronics miniaturization and advanced software will lead to future weight and crew size reductions. The Air Force took a wise approach when it optimized the requirements for the current JSTARS mission and right-sized the crew complement.
To summarize, the right sized total weapon system is not an airplane, but a system of systems—aircraft, sensors, and BMC2 mission equipment--fully integrated to provide real time, accurate targeting information to warfighters. In the case of JSTARS Recap, this complex integration of system components includes an advanced BMC2/GMTI suite with proven advanced automation tools to track thousands of targets simultaneously, reduced manpower requirements; a modern, high-performing, near all-weather radar capable of accurate tracking/targeting; a robust communications system, and the capability to rapidly reprogram the systems and insert new technologies as they become available.
From my own experience flying the E-8C BMC2 system, the higher the JSTARS Recap can fly, the better: Higher altitudes allow the radar to see further and identify masked enemy combatants in complex mountainous terrain, which is the case with many of the countries that threaten US interests. Higher altitude allows greater stand-off ranges for survivability as well.
Another benefit of JSTARS Recap is the ability to rapidly deploy worldwide, with greater unrefueled ranges, and the capability to land at many more NATO approved runways than the E-8C allows to gain immediate access to the mission area and obtain more
efficient use of the mission system.
This offers a huge operational advantage to the warfighter.
In a time of increased global instability and constrained resources, the JSTARS Recap acquisition program has rightly focused on the total mission package, not just the airplane. The best choice for the JSTARS Recap weapon system will be the one that provides the USAF maximum mission effectiveness and mission flexibility, proven BMC2/GMTI
capabilities, and lowest total cost of ownership. We owe the best possible JSTARS Recap to our warfighters in the air and on the ground.