New mission for Robins offers protection for Middle Georgia base

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)

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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)

Robins Air Force Base will play host to a new intelligence and surveillance system in the years to come, the Air Force announced this week, a mission that will help insulate the Middle Georgia base should the Pentagon launch a new round of base closures.

But Wednesday's announcement from the Defense Department still left many questions unanswered about the future of a separate but related mission at the base, a top priority of Georgia lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Robins would host “initial elements” of the Advanced Battle Management System, next-generation technology being developed by the Defense Department aimed at helping the U.S. military survey and collect intelligence on its enemies from the sky.

“We must adapt our capability to survive in the changed threat environment and move swiftly to advanced battlefield management and surveillance,” Wilson said Wednesday.

The Air Force provided few details about what specifically the new system would include beyond drones with sensors “capable of collecting and transmitting information from the battlefield.” It also did not disclose how much the technology would cost or how many jobs it would create, saying only that Robins wouldn’t likely lose jobs.

The announcement was also vague about when the new mission would arrive at Robins and be fully operational — a major sticking point for Georgia’s members of Congress.

The base is currently home to the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, old 707 passenger planes outfitted with radar and surveillance equipment that have been used heavily in the fight against the Islamic State.

The 16 JSTARS are reaching the end of their lifetimes — the Air Force projects the current fleet will be operational through the mid- to late 2020s — and the Advanced Battle Management System is seen as its eventual replacement.

But Georgia lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a member of the House Armed Services Committee whose 8th Congressional District is home to Robins, say there could be a gap between when the new system can be battle-ready.

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

Scott and other Georgia lawmakers want the Air Force to move forward with its longtime plans to order new JSTARS. Congress has appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for such recapitalization work in recent years. So members of the delegation went ballistic last year after they heard the Pentagon was looking into other options.

"There is no alternative for JSTARS and indicators of its retirement are unacceptable," five local lawmakers wrote in a searing letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis in September. "Without this capability, we greatly diminish our nation's air power and reduce our combat strength."

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

Lawmakers in previous years have blocked the Pentagon from spending money on pursuing alternatives or put strings on the military's ability to do so. But earlier this year the Defense Department indicated it would move to use other systems it already has available to conduct similar work tracking ground targets.

An Air Force spokeswoman said Thursday that the Pentagon does not expect any gaps in its surveillance capabilities.

Still, Georgia lawmakers and other Robins boosters cheered this week’s news about the Advanced Battle Management System mission.

“We welcome any and all new missions that the Air Force is willing to bring to Robins, and I will continue to work with the Air Force as the implementation of this plan proceeds,” said U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. “In the meantime, I urge Secretary Wilson to work with us to ensure that there will be no capabilities gap that could put our war fighters at risk during the transition to this new system.”

Dan Rhoades, the director of strategy for the Robins advocacy group the 21st Century Partnership, said the new mission would benefit the community surrounding the base and the state of Georgia more broadly. He said he hoped it would help shield the base should a new round of closures be authorized.

“This certainly helps to bolster Robins Air Force Base and adds to the mission sets that we have at the base,” Rhoades said. “But as with any base, you’re always looking to not only protecting the missions that you have but bringing additional missions to the base and ensuring the community is positioned well to be able to support those missions.”

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