After spending years preparing to replace its Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (J-Stars) with a next-generation radar plane, the Air Force this summer abruptly disclosed that it wanted to rethink the whole effort. It says there are concerns about the survivability of manned radar planes in future high-intensity conflicts. However, it isn’t clear at all what the alternative would be to sustain a vital battlefield surveillance capability — and that raises major concerns. The current J-Stars fleet of 16 radar planes has grown decrepit with age, but is a fixture in joint warfighting plans. At any given time, 40-50% of the fleet is unavailable due to maintenance concerns, and that problem will likely grow as the fleet continues to age. Unfortunately, no alternative solution currently exists, and the Air Force’s apparent strategy of netting together diverse platforms in a “disaggregated” system would take decades to field. It will cost much more money to keep the current J-Stars fleet flying while the new approach is developed than it would to simply stick with buying a replacement plane. And most of the candidates for the alternative solution would have survivability problems of their own in future conflicts. I have written a commentary for RealClearDefense here.
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