Fate of military aircraft spurs a political fight in Georgia

A U.S. Air Force photo of an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) receiving fuel from a KC-135 tanker plane in 2004. (U.S. Air Force via The New York Times)

A U.S. Air Force photo of an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) receiving fuel from a KC-135 tanker plane in 2004. (U.S. Air Force via The New York Times)

Two prominent Georgia Republicans feuded publicly this week over an aging surveillance aircraft and what its eventual replacement could mean for the future of its home at Robins Air Force Base.

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton represents the Middle Georgia base and is a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee. He and the bulk of the Georgia congressional delegation has pushed the Pentagon for years to replace Robins’ 16 E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, with a brand-new fleet.

So Scott was livid when a defense policy bill released Monday did not include a $623 million down payment for new planes, as the House had initially endorsed. He blamed the omission on Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Warner Robins native who also sat on the House-Senate conference committee that hashed out the compromise agreement.

“Unfortunately, without Senator Perdue’s support on the conference committee, the replacement aircraft will not be fielded, forcing a higher risk to our men and women in uniform by continuing to fly the 48 year old legacy JSTARS aircraft which are in need of (replacing),” Scott said in a statement.

Perdue disagreed. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said there has been “some irrationality” around the airplane and “what is best long-term.” He endorsed a Pentagon-backed approach that would replace JSTARS with a different system at Robins after 2028.

“Anyone who doesn’t see that this plan is a huge win for Robins is more concerned with their next election than our long-term national security and Robins’ long-term viability,” he said.

Aging airplanes

The military first began using JSTARS in the early 1990s, upgrading old Boeing 707 passenger aircraft with radar and other surveillance capabilities. The planes grew to become central to the military’s reconnaissance work, and particularly in the Pentagon’s recent efforts to counter the Islamic State.

The system supports roughly 2,500 jobs, including air crews, surveillance specialists and maintenance personnel, and it generates more than $204 million in annual economic benefits for Georgia, according to federal figures.

But the planes, which are housed at Robins when they aren’t on missions, are aging and in frequent need of repair. They’re projected to hit the end of their lifetimes within the next decade.

For many years the Pentagon and Georgia lawmakers, including Perdue, were in agreement about what was to happen next: The old fleet of JSTARS would be replaced with a new one beginning in the 2020s.

But some in the defense community began voicing doubts about JSTARS’ capabilities, particularly when forced to contend with enemy fire in what’s known as denied airspace.

A new generation of JSTARS planes, Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote to lawmakers earlier this year, will “not meet the needs of the warfighter across the full spectrum of conflict.”

The Pentagon eventually sought to abandon its plans for a new JSTARS fleet. It instead proposed outfitting a new system known as the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, that officials said would perform the same surveillance and reconnaissance functions but more efficiently, and also function better in denied airspace.

The Air Force promised it would house “initial elements” of that new mission at Robins, but it was also vague about what the ABMS system would comprise beyond drones.

‘Fill the gap’

Georgia lawmakers, including Scott and Perdue, cheered the ABMS announcement, in no small part because it could help insulate Robins should Congress greenlight a new round of military base closures. But they have differed in what the best approach was for the Defense Department’s surveillance work in the medium term after the current JSTARS fleet is phased out.

Scott said the Air Force, in its classified briefings with him and other members of the House Armed Services Committee, lacked full information about ABMS’ design and operational details. He worried there could be a “capability gap” between the JSTARS retirement date and when ABMS could be fully battle-ready.

“They are going to have a new system in 25 years, probably,” Scott said. “But you’ve still got to fill the gap between now and 25 years.”

He continued to push for the Air Force to outfit a new JSTARS fleet, a call echoed by other Georgia lawmakers, including U.S. Reps. Jody Hice and Sanford Bishop.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee aligned more closely with the Pentagon’s wishes. That approach is ultimately what won out in the compromise defense policy bill.

The legislation includes language that would allow the Pentagon to accelerate its ABMS plans. It would also require the Air Force to keep the current JSTARS fleet flying until 2028, or until other benchmarks are met.

Perdue endorsed the approach.

“There’s a growing part of the world with denied airspace where we can’t get JSTARS into,” he said in an interview. The legislation, he said, “saves jobs.”

“It creates a long-term plan by going to a platform that will be viable in denied airspace,” Perdue said.

Scott warned it could leave Robins more vulnerable to base closure and said abandoning a new JSTARS fleet would “endanger” troops who rely on its technology and risks.

Perdue said he saw the Pentagon’s plans for ABMS in a classified setting and is confident there won’t be a technology gap.

‘Bird in the hand’

Many local military interests chose not to get involved in the tiff.

“I’m not going to weigh in on either side, but the fact that we’re talking about a mission at Robins Air Force Base is positive,” said Chrissy Miner of the 21st Century Partnership, a Robins advocacy group, referring to ABMS. “We just want to continue to let the Air Force know that this base is conducive to growing and building for the future from the community side.”

Two state senators from the Warner Robins area, Larry Walker III of Perry and Bubber Epps of Dry Branch, weighed in on Perdue's side.

“I guess the old saying of a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” applies, Epps said.

“I don’t know to what degree ABMS is a bird in the hand, but it’s been assigned to Robins,” Epps said. “I know as we move in this direction it’s going to give us some assurance in the area of a (base closure process) if it does come about.”

Bishop, an Albany Democrat, backed Scott. He said eliminating the JSTARS replacement program “is a step in the wrong direction.”

Scott promised to keep pushing for new JSTARS planes in the future, even as he voted on Thursday to pass the compromise defense bill.

“I hope Senator Perdue is willing to come back to the table,” he said.

What is JSTARS?

The E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, also known as JSTARS, is a fleet of 16 planes manufactured by Northrop Grumman that perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

The planes, formerly Boeing 707 passenger aircraft that have been outfitted with radar and surveillance equipment, have been integral to the U.S.’ fight against the Islamic State in recent years.

But the planes are getting old — they were first used by the Pentagon in 1991, but their bodies are much older — and are frequently under repair. The Pentagon initially planned to order a new fleet of JSTARS, but the Air Force changed course this year. It said it instead wanted to replace JSTARS with the Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS, in the next decade and phase out the current fleet housed at Robins Air Force Base in Middle Georgia. The Air Force promised to base initial elements of the new mission at Robins.

JSTARS and Georgia

The E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, is based at Robins Air Force Base in Middle Georgia. It supports roughly 2,500 jobs, generating more than $204 million in annual economic benefits for the state, according to federal figures.