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​USAF doubts new JSTARS could fly in contested airspace

The US Air Force does not believe recapitalising the Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) fleet will give the service the capability it needs for contested environments, the head of Air Combat Command says.

The remarks by Gen Mike Holmes at an Air Force Association event on 20 November sheds more light on the reasons why the $6.9 billion JSTARS replacement programme has come to a halt since September, leaving three bidding teams -- Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman -- waiting for a final decision.

The options under discussion are whether to move forward with a large business jet or Boeing's 737-700 as either a temporary or long-term replacement, or jump to a next-generation system that could operate and survive in contested environments.

A key issue in the discussions is how a next-generation JSTARS fits into a US military inventory with several similar capabilities. In addition to the E-8C's ground moving target indicator (GMTI) mode in the synthetic aperture radar, the USAF also operates 11 Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Block 40s with a smaller version of the same radar. The US Army flies manned surveillance aircraft equipped with Northrop's Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER), a GMTI optimised to track people instead of vehicles. Moreover, the US Navy is developing the Raytheon Advanced Airborne System (AAS) for the Boeing P-8A Poseidon, which also has a GMTI capability, says Gen Michael Holmes..

But all of those systems operate in permissive environments, where the platforms can fly in close enough to get a good line of sight. Following a speech at an Air Force Association event outside Washington this week, Holmes warns that even a new JSTARS fleet would not be fit for operating in a contested enviroment.

“How will we fight and how will we close the kill chain in a highly contested environment in a world we live in now, where, if war kicked off in northern Europe, the NATO soldiers and coalition soldiers would already be underneath that umbrella provided by an integrated air defence?” Holmes says. “Our conclusion is, that none of those systems that were fielded now, including our current JSTARS or a replacement JSTARS would give us the capability to do that.”

The crux of the decision comes down to whether the USAF should fund one more recapitalisation or find another way to bridge the capability gap, Holmes says. But the USAF must make that decision with Congress, a vocal proponent of the JSTARS recapitalisation.

While the USAF would like to fund a programme that’s more effective in contested airspace, JSTARS still provides a crucial capability in counter insurgency operations.

“We’re not doing much around the world right now with that broad-area, air battle management because we’re not fighting that kind of war,” Holmes says. “What we are using the airplane for is as a communications relay and to do some specific GMTI work against some, kind of, novel threats that it wasn’t built for, so we’re looking for things like small vehicles and for dismounted people.”

The USAF could create a web of coverage with unmanned air vehicles, such as the Global Hawk. Holmes admitted there are strengths and weaknesses with the Global Hawk, and that the USAF is examining a range of capabilities to provide “nontraditional GMTI capability” against small vehicles in a contested environment. While Holmes says the USAF and Navy are talking about how platforms communicate and share information, he declined to comment on whether the air force could share the P-8’s GMTI capability.

“We’ll worry down the road about exactly who has what and how many of what do we need to buy,” he says. “I think the first task is going back to what we’re talking about in equipping for that contested environment, the platforms are important, but more important is how do they tie together?”

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