When the Air Force was split off from the Army to form an independent military service in 1947, the Army got almost all the helicopters and the Air Force got almost all the fixed-wing planes. The assumption was that the two services would support each other in future military campaigns to assure the full range of needed capabilities was fielded. In practice, though, the Air Force has sometimes behaved as if the warfighting needs of ground forces were an afterthought.
A case in point was the Air Force's attempt to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a "close air support" plane revered within the Army for its ability to support ground troops by precisely targeting enemy tanks and other armored vehicles. The Air Force said the A-10 was too slow-moving to survive in modern combat, but then turned around and started promoting propeller-driven planes for waging war against insurgents like the Taliban. The message the Army got from this episode was that its views didn't carry much weight among Air Force leaders.
Congress eventually compelled the Air Force to keep its Thunderbolts, unconvinced that the service would come up with a better way of delivering close air support to troops. But the Air Force does not seem to have learned any lessons from the experience. Now it is moving to kill another aircraft program that soldiers rely on, a radar plane called the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS, or "J-Stars").
JSTARS is a unique military asset that uses radar capable of penetrating dust, darkness and precipitation to track moving ground targets. The airborne radar can perform surveillance of vast areas, or focus in on particular items of interest and generate imagery that is quickly transmitted to troops. This reconnaissance has proven highly useful to tactical commanders, and is much in demand. During the Iraq war, it enabled U.S. forces to destroy enemy tanks near friendly troops in the midst of a raging sandstorm.
But the second-hand Boeing 707s on which the JSTARS radar is hosted have grown decrepit with age, and apparently the value of their intelligence to soldiers on the ground isn't enough to keep the capability sold among Air Force leaders. After spending $265 million on a program called JSTARS Recap that would buy 17 replacement planes, the Air Force has decided to rethink the whole effort. It wants to conduct an "analysis of alternatives" to determine whether there are better ways to do the mission.
That might sound reasonable if the service hadn't already conducted five such analyses that led to the current replacement program. A sixth review of options would come to the same conclusion, which means what's really going on is the Air Force is trying to jettison the capability entirely. It won't have to wait much longer to accomplish that goal: the existing fleet of ground-tracking radar planes is so aged it will have to begin retiring soon, in part because the Air Force has declined to make needed modifications like installing new engines. (end of excerpt)
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