The U.S. Air Force operates a small fleet of radar planes that can track the movement of ground forces day or night, rain or shine. No kidding, the planes can peer through the murkiest sandstorm to pinpoint the location of hostile forces, identifying what kind of vehicles they are operating, what direction they are moving in, and at what speed. The information is passed along to coalition air and ground units over secure datalinks so they can target enemies without harming friendly forces — once a common occurrence in the fog of war.
Officially called the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, there is little doubt that “JSTARS” planes have saved many American lives since their battlefield debut during Operation Desert Storm 25 years ago. Imagine what it means for soldiers to have an airborne surveillance asset that can simultaneously track up to 600 moving ground targets over an area of nearly 20,000 square miles. It’s a game-changer in terms of combat survivability and success. Which means it could be a game-loser if troops lost access to the planes.
Unfortunately, that is precisely the vector that the Air Force has put JSTARS on as a result of continuously ignoring congressional direction and combatant commander requests for a quick replacement of the aging planes. The problem is that three decades ago, in a misplaced drive for economy, the Air Force decided to install its ground-tracking radars on “pre-owned” (second-hand) Boeing 707 jetliners. In other words, the planes that debuted in Desert Storm had already been flying for dozens of years, and today the whole fleet is decrepit.
The service had the option of refurbishing the corroded airframes, replacing outdated engines and refreshing on-board electronics, but it figured for half as much money it could just install a new radar on business jets that would be much cheaper to operate than the four-engine, first-generation jetliners currently in use. All it was trying to do was reproduce the impressive tracking and imaging capability of JSTARS on a more efficient off-the-shelf airframe, which seemed simple enough. The plan was to develop and field the new airframes in six years.
Well, for reasons only the Air Force can explain, that plan has now stretched out to a dozen years. Air Force planners say the first new plane will not be operational under what it calls JSTARS Recap until 2024, and the fleet of 17 replacement planes will not be fully available until 2028. That timeline has two disturbing consequences. (end of excerpt)
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