There’s a story in the May 14 issue of Defense News that helps explain why Air Force modernization since the end of the Cold War has been largely a chronicle of missed opportunities. The story by reporter Jeff Schogol quotes Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz as saying that he doesn’t think the Navy’s new P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft is the best replacement for the Air Force’s aging JSTARS radar plane. Schwartz says the service’s analysis of alternatives indicates the best solution would be a militarized business jet. Unfortunately, the Air Force can’t afford to begin such a program right now.
The chief’s view on this matter is so wrongheaded that I couldn’t let the week end without commenting. The Air Force says that Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) is one of its core competencies, but it has not done a great job over the last decade of living up to that claim. Let’s use the example of the JSTARS mission — tracking and imaging moving ground targets with an airborne radar — to trace how confused its efforts have been.
First the Air Force said it wanted to replace aging radar planes like JSTARS with a new aircraft designated the E-10 Multi-Sensor Command and Control Aircraft. That was a top priority under former Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper, but Air Force leaders couldn’t convince the people around Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld it was the right way to go because they preferred the “transformational” solution of tracking surface targets from space. So the E-10 was canceled. The focus then shifted to a program called Space Radar, but as soon as the Rumsfeld team departed the Air Staff turned that into a billpayer, and it disappeared too (a rump program survives in the black world).
That left the service with its existing fleet of JSTARS aircraft, which have serious age-related problems because the Clinton Administration elected to use second-hand Boeing 707s to host the plane’s high-resolution sensors. The Air Force could have upgraded JSTARS with more reliable engines and a series of radar enhancements it had spent a billion dollars developing, but it tried to avoid either step, pleading lack of funds. Instead, it elected to equip a handful of Global Hawk unmanned aircraft with a version of the new technology — even though the smaller dimensions of those airframes limited the sensitivity of the upgrades. In case you haven’t heard, the service now also wants to get rid of most of its Global Hawk aircraft.
While this debacle was unfolding, the Navy was developing the P-8 Poseidon successor to its P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft. The P-8 is based on a militarized version of the Boeing 737, which is the most widely used commercial transport in the world. The Navy chose it, among other reasons, because it can be cheaply serviced and sustained just about anywhere. And although senior officials don’t like to talk about all the sensors it will carry, it has a radar very similar to what the Air Force would need in a JSTARS successor. If the Air Force chose to go that route, it could avoid most of the nonrecurring costs associated with developing a next-generation ground-tracking radar because the Navy has already made the investment.
So what does the Air Force Chief of Staff say when asked to comment on this possibility in a public forum? He says (1) We’d rather start over with a different airframe and design, (2) We can’t afford to do that for the foreseeable future, and (3) But we aren’t willing to give up the mission to the Navy. This is not clear thinking. The goal of ISR modernization isn’t to protect Air Force uniqueness, it’s to serve the operational needs of the joint force. Since the Air Force has squandered billions of dollars over a decade to make almost no progress on modernizing its ground-tracking radars, it’s time to look at solutions that have been developed in other services. That doesn’t mean another service should take over the mission, but if the Air Force doesn’t get its act together, that could be the ultimate outcome.
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