Can the U.S. Congress force the Air Force into reinstating the JSTARS Recapitalization program? According to the HASC’s Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee’s markup of the FY19 National Defense Authorization Bill, there is a good possibility that it can.
Based on statements in the bill’s markup (Title II – Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation, Legislative Provisions, Section 2xx – Limitation Pending Certification on the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System Recapitalization Program), the subcommittee intends to “… restrict obligation of funding for the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) of Systems initiative of the Department of the Air Force, as well as a portion of the proposed divestment of legacy E-8C aircraft contained in the fiscal year 2019 budget request.”
The purpose of this restriction is to pressure the Secretary of the Air Force into certifying “… to the congressional defense committees that the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) Recapitalization (Recap) program, as submitted and described in the fiscal year 2018 budget request, is proceeding unhindered with originally planned activities associated with engineering, manufacturing, and development; low-rate initial production; production; and initial contractor support.” By withdrawing funding from a program that the Air Force believes is foundational to its future plans, the congressional subcommittee hopes to bend the Air Force’s plans for the JSTARS Recap to its will.
The committee notes that this “… would require the Secretary of the Air Force to submit a report to the congressional defense committees that includes a strategy for accelerating the JSTARS Recap program, while also managing appropriately the legacy fleet of E-8C aircraft.”
The methods used by this maneuver to pressure the Air Force into reinstating the JSTARS Recap are extreme but not unusual. Over the past decade, the Air Force has asked the U.S. to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to the JSTARS Recap program, and the JSTARS Recap was already the second time that development of a JSTARS successor had been attempted. The first was canceled unceremoniously after the obligation of hundreds of millions of dollars.
At one time, the JSTARS Recap was a valuable part of the Air Force’s future strategy, and the military had persuaded Congress and the president to commit significant percentages of the military’s budget to its development. Companies that were downstream of or primary suppliers to the program devoted a significant amount of internal funding to developing their competitive bids, workers were hired, and departments were scaled up. By going from an excess of $400 million in JSTARS Recap funding in one year to nothing the next, the Air Force had thrown the proverbial wrench into the gears of the U.S. defense industry.
The U.S. Congress is seeking to guarantee some fiscal assurances for the companies involved in the JSTARS Recap, while also following through on commitments made to taxpayers during previous years of JSTARS Recap funding. Will Congress’s efforts result in a long-term JSTARS Recap program, or will they merely delay cancellation temporarily? For now, there is no clear outcome, and a reliable program projection cannot be made. Any JSTARS Recap program forecast would be entirely speculative.