On September 30, Pentagon technology chief Ashton Carter directed the Air Force to fund new jet engines for the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) fleet. The planes carry a unique radar that can track and image moving ground targets — some as small as individual terrorists — over vast areas. It’s a unique capability directly relevant to the fight in Southwest Asia, but the Air Force isn’t exactly rushing to keep the aircraft operational. First the service shelved upgrades that would have made the radar more agile, then it neglected to obligate money for new engines appropriated by Congress.
Senior Pentagon leaders have repeatedly signaled that the service must keep the JSTARS planes viable. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. James Cartwright kicked Air Force budgeteers out of his office when they proposed retiring the fleet, and now technology guru Carter is telling them to go find the money for new engines. If the Air Force had obligated money in a timely fashion, the first two sets of engines would be funded, but instead it is asking Congress to make up a shortfall its foot-dragging created, which amounts to seeking money for the same item twice.
This mess doesn’t build confidence about the Air Force’s commitment to supporting the needs of soldiers, soldiers being the main consumers of JSTAR reconnaissance. But it’s more important to get warfighters what they need than to have an inside-the-beltway wrangle over who’s to blame for dropping the budgetary ball. Carter needs to hold Air Force feet to the fire on meeting joint surveillance needs, and Congress needs to provide the money necessary to keep the re-engining program going. There are only 17 planes in the JSTARS fleet, but it looks like we’re going to have to rely on them for a long time to come, and as of right now not one has the new engines needed to stay viable.
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