Imagine if the Union Army had possessed the technical means to “see” from the farmlands of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia.
President Abraham Lincoln’s military commanders could have monitored the movements of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate troops in the spring and summer of 1863, well in advance of their clandestine march around Washington, through western Maryland and into the heart of the North. The Battle of Gettysburg, which demonstrated the South’s ability to take the war to the North and helped to prolong the bloodiest war in American history for two more years, might have been avoided.
Gen. George Meade, the commander of Union troops in the battle, lacked such omniscience in an age when even photography was in its infancy, but his military descendants a century and half later often take it for granted.
But just as Meade lacked the ability to predict Lee’s march into Pennsylvania, so it appears the current leadership of the Pentagon lacks the foresight to ensure U.S. commanders have the information they need on the movements, and therefore intentions, of enemy forces. And although Meade’s inability to see the approaching enemy was no fault of his own, one might not be able to say the same for today’s military leaders if American forces fail to anticipate the actions of adversaries on the battlefields of tomorrow because they were denied the tools.
The convergence of technological advances in manned flight, radar, electronics and computers has given today’s military commanders the “eyesight” needed to quickly and correctly identify detailed battlefield conditions, such as the disposition of an adversary’s tanks, armored vehicles, other ground combat systems, and troop formations across 35,000 square miles. In other words, a commander could track every car, van, truck and sport utility vehicle traveling on Interstate 95 from Washington, D.C. to Boston.
How? In the form of the Air Force’s E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, a modified Boeing 707 jetliner outfitted with computer consoles where crew members can receive, analyze and disseminate to other friendly forces highly accurate battlefield information collected from the aircraft’s suite of radars and other high-tech sensors.
However, despite JSTARS’ revolutionary contribution to modern warfare, first in the Persian Gulf War and more recently in the skies over Bosnia and Kosovo, senior military and political leaders have relegated the weapon system to the backburner in the defense budget battle, in recent years forcing proponents to fight for the plane’s very existence in the military’s procurement budget.
In the 1980s, when JSTARS was first conceived, the Pentagon planned to purchase as many as 30 of the airborne ground surveillance (AGS) systems, viewed as a critical adjunct to the Air Force’s fleet of E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, capable of monitoring vast swaths of airspace for enemy aircraft.
After the end of the Cold War and the associated reductions in defense expenditures, the Pentagon scaled back its optimum JSTARS fleet to 19. Then, in the wake of the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Pentagon cut the fleet even further to 13 aircraft with the rationale that the United States’ NATO allies would purchase as many as six JSTARS or a similar capability to complement the U.S. fleet in future coalition operations.
NATO has yet to make significant progress toward selecting, let alone fielding, an AGS platform, as U.S. military reliance on JSTARS has steadily increased. In NATO’s Operation Allied Force in Kosovo last year, all available JSTARS were utilized. In fact, they were stretched thin by overuse. JSTARS training personnel and system instructors were required to report to duty or deploy overseas to meet the fleet’s high operating tempo, leaving new JSTARS trainees in the lurch. Such recent experience has underscored that a fleet of 19 aircraft, and perhaps even more, is likely to be needed to effectively mount military operations in the future, whether they be force-on-force engagements or peacekeeping missions.
But despite mounting evidence that its 1997 decision to reduce the fleet to 13 was premature, the Pentagon was prepared to close down the JSTARS production line last year, minimizing the chances for beefing up the fleet in the future in a cost-effective manner. Thanks to the Congress, the aircraft’s future prospects were given a stay of execution. In the Fiscal Year 2000 defense budget the Pentagon was allocated the necessary resources to either begin purchasing components for a 14th JSTARS or close down the production line in Melbourne, FL. The Pentagon opted for the 14th aircraft. And in the wake of the aircraft’s role in Kosovo, the Pentagon has requested funding for a 15th JSTARS in its Fiscal Year 2001 budget request, unveiled in February.
If the recent past is any indication, the Pentagon is likely to reach the 19-aircraft mark eventually, opting to buy a new aircraft each year. However, by purchasing the remainder of the fleet in such a piecemeal fashion, it will not only acquire the objective fleet later than originally anticipated, but more than likely at a higher cost.
Early in the JSTARS program, assuming a two-aircraft per year procurement rate, it was expected that the 19th aircraft would be delivered in 2005. With only the seventh production-model JSTARS delivered to the Air Force in March, the failure to seek authorization for the full 19-aircraft fleet will undoubtedly increase the risk that U.S. and allied forces will go to war in the near future lacking sufficient airborne ground surveillance.
Though the cost of each JSTARS depends on the fitness of the used 707 airframes Northrop Grumman turns into high-tech spy planes, company officials put the per unit cost at about $187 million. But, if the planes continue to be purchased in fits and starts, those costs are expected to go up. Without long-term guarantees, Northrop Grumman has found it difficult to maintain the diverse vendor base that is critical to the JSTARS manufacturing process. “I suspect cost will go up,” said one senior program official. “We would like to have aircraft numbers 16 through 19 authorized to help avoid that.”
The Air Force in late January received the go-ahead to allow Northrop Grumman to outfit the current JSTARS fleet with improved radar capabilities, the so-called Radar Technology Improvement Program. The service has also initiated plans to equip the current fleet and any future JSTARS aircraft with new engines to increase mission duration, time on station and extend its operating ceiling by 10,000 feet. Other coming improvements include improved crew workstations, a computer replacement program and an improved data modem.
“During Operation Allied Force, new concepts were developed for employing JSTARS in a variety of [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance ] missions and for fusing the data that it provides with that collected by other ISR platforms,” according to the Pentagon’s Kosovo after-action report. “Concepts of operation for using JSTARS will continue to evolve.”
Today’s military leaders have ample evidence that the JSTARS fleet is a crucial tool in the US military arsenal-from helping to in
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