The US Air Force could have a decision on the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) recapitalisation programme by the end of the October, the service’s top civilian hinted during a 5 October event in Washington.

USAF Secretary Heather Wilson had indicated in September that the service could announce a JSTARS decision as early as October, but service now seems likely to wait until the end of the month. The USAF told Defense Secretary James Mattis in a 8 September letter the service was exploring alternative intelligence and surveillance platforms outside of JSTARS, riling the Northrop Grumman E-8 jet’s supporters in Congress.

Following a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington this week, Wilson said USAF engineers are examining whether there is technology mature enough to step in for the JSTARS mission. The source selection process for the replacement programme is continuing as the USAF evaluates alternative options.

“It is cycled with the budget and we know we have [request for proposals] out there,” she says. “We should be able to make a rapid assessment and decision so we can explain to the secretary of well as the other branch of government what we think is the best thing to do.”

Wilson intimated the JSTARS replacement programme could fall out of the air force’s budget as a tradeoff. When asked about balancing aircraft modernisation priorities and ambitious new space programmes, Wilson pointed to the air force’s scrutiny over its legacy battlefield command and control platform, specifically the JSTARS aircraft introduced in 1991. In 2018, the USAF will take up the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) analysis of alternatives, which will consider alternative options such as networking sensors that could complete BMC2 functions in contested environments. Eliminating JSTARS is not a direct tradeoff for new space capabilities, Wilson clarified.

“It’s a great aircraft, a great concept but technology has moved on,” she says. “Everything now is a sensor. If an F-35 can send its picture and its radar on an image to another aircraft and we’re also pulling all that down to a battle station in the middle east, why can’t we distribute it? We can do better than this with a network. We’re asking ourselves those questions, that does mean moving money among programs to try to do more priorities.”

Even with the air force mounting an offensive, JSTARS still has its staunch supporters on Capitol Hill. The House of Representative’s version of the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act included an amendment that would prevent any FY18 funds from being used to retire or prepare to retire existing E-8 JSTARS aircraft. The House and Senate have both passed their versions of the defence policy bill and will go to conference, where both chambers work out one comprehensive piece of legislation.