Delays In Replacing Decrepit Air Force Radar Planes Could Prove Fatal To U.S. Soldiers

Loren Thompson

Loren Thompson

JSTARS radar planes are crucial to providing soldiers on the ground with information about nearby threats, but they are so decrepit it’s scary. At the rate the Air Force is developing a successor, most of them will probably be retired long before the replacement is available. (Wikimedia Commons/US Air Force)

JSTARS radar planes are crucial to providing soldiers on the ground with information about nearby threats, but they are so decrepit it’s scary. At the rate the Air Force is developing a successor, most of them will probably be retired long before the replacement is available. (Wikimedia Commons/US Air Force)

The U.S. Army is in a world of hurt. Its ranks have been slashed by over 100,000 soldiers during the Obama years in the mistaken belief that threats were receding in Europe and the Middle East. The readiness of the remaining troops to fight has been undercut by congressionally-mandated budget caps. And the Army’s modernization plan for replacing worn-out equipment has nearly ground to a halt.

These are worrisome trends for an organization that fears it might be fighting Russia or Iran or North Korea within the next five years. But now it has another problem. The U.S. Air Force is taking way too long to replace decrepit radar planes that tell soldiers when threats are approaching. The program is called the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, and it consists of 16 modified Boeing 707 jetliners that can track up to 600 moving ground objects simultaneously at distances of over 100 miles.

It can also generate imagery for U.S. troops, so they know where enemies are located, how numerous they are, which direction they’re headed, and at what speed. The radar that generates this information can peer through darkness, clouds, precipitation and even sandstorms, making it an invaluable asset on the battlefield. Over the years since it first debuted in Operation Desert Storm, JSTARS has probably saved the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers.

But Boeing stopped building its four-engine 707s in 1979, and the planes in the JSTARS fleet were bought second-hand in the 1980s. Today, they have so many maintenance problems that on any given day, half the fleet is unavailable. The airframes have extensive corrosion, the engines are ancient gas-guzzlers, and suppliers for the on-board electronics are rapidly disappearing. In an Air Force fleet that is older than ever before, the JSTARS planes have accumulated more flight hours than any other aircraft type.

Which means they will need to be retired within ten years — assuming they don’t experience catastrophic failure sooner. The Air Force considered trying to fix all the problems on JSTARS, but figured out it would cost almost twice as much to keep the current fleet functioning over the next few decades as it would to just buy new planes. The replacement program, begun last year, is called JSTARS Recapitalization, and it started out as a straightforward effort to install mature technology into 17 off-the-shelf jetliners. How hard could that be?

Harder than the Air Force expected, it seems. When the Air Force Chief of Staff testified before Congress about JSTARS Recap last year, he said the first new planes needed to be operational by 2021 so the decrepit legacy fleet could begin exiting the force. But then initial operating capability slipped to 2023 because the Air Force’s electronics mafia decided it wanted additional time for development. That was followed by a further delay to 2024, and now it looks like a glitch in Senate authorizing language could delay initial fielding to 2025.

By that time, the entire current fleet is supposed to be on its way out the door, meaning U.S. soldiers will not have the benefit of airborne tracking for moving targets on the ground. To put this in tactical perspective, a U.S. Army brigade operating on a rainy day in Europe might have no idea a Russian armored column is rapidly approaching from the east. Or U.S. special operators in the Middle East might be unaware the sandstorm they are enduring conceals a large force of terrorists roaring toward them in SUVs.

Remember, just because one or two new radar planes have become operational doesn’t mean the whole fleet has been replaced. That will take much longer at the current rate of progress — maybe until 2030 or later. So U.S. soldiers are facing a prolonged period when vital battlefield intelligence is not available, and many of them, maybe thousands, could die as a result. When Pentagon policymakers talk about modernization being delayed, that’s what it means on the ground. Warfighters are killed, or horribly wounded, or permanently traumatized for lack of equipment.

I’ve raised the question in the past of why the Air Force needs a dozen years to modify 17 off-the-shelf jetliners with mature technology. Something tells me China could do this in a couple of years. But when you have a buying command that insists on doing things the old way, and a service that prioritizes needs closer to its cultural preferences, and a Congress that underfunds the replacement of aging equipment, this is the result. Wars get lost, soldiers die for no good reason.

All of the congressional committees with oversight of JSTARS Recapitalization have told the Air Force to speed up the process. So far, there is no evidence that is happening. It is time to start imposing some penalties to shake the system out of its leisurely ways.

I have business ties of one sort or another to companies on all three teams vying for the JSTARS Recap contract.