The FY22 budget proposal includes a request to retire 4 of the Air Force’s E-8 JSTARS fleet currently in service. It’s not only long overdue, but the Air Force could retire more of them without too much drama outside some triggered Georgia politicians.
The E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems (JSTARS) is a wide-area surveillance platform that uses synthetic aperture radar to map large swaths of ground and find moving vehicles (GMTI in mil-speak). Its 1980s radar is strapped to second-hand 1950s Boeing 707 platforms, which are out of service everywhere except for a few specimens remaining within the Air Force.
There are only 16 E-8s in service, and they average 52 years old and have 61,000 hours.
One of these E-8s previously flew as a urine-soaked cattle hauler before being purchased and converted by the Air Force.
In the past decade, this low-density high-demand fleet has seen a
in maintenance costs. Furthering its death spiral is the
in operational costs over the same period. One of these aircraft is so decrepit that it's been stuck in depot for
It costs the Air Force $62 million a year to keep these in service...per aircraft. That works out to be
$170,000 per day per aircraft
. For perspective, that’s how much a U.S. Congressman makes in an entire year (before bribes and kickbacks).
Do you know what happens when a star dies? It turns into a black hole. Well, the same goes for JSTARS. In the case of the E-8, it’s a black hole for money and wasted human talent. The platform is too old, there’s too few of them, and the equipment is so dated it’s lost nearly all of its warfighting value.
In fact, the E-8 JSTARS has never lived up to its expectations...even when it was new. There are GAO reports
going back 25 years
that all say the same thing: there are better ways to get this information and throwing a dozen people on used 707s to fly this radar was a terrible idea.
But, but, but…what about “the combatant commander demands”? To that, we say: “Prove it.” Which combatant command is demanding it, exactly what is the capability needed, and what “risk” are they accepting by not having it?
For too long the combatant commands have asked for everything without having to justify it to anyone, especially the services who are left holding both the readiness and modernization bags. OBTW, they should not be allowed to use platitudes or vanity metrics like X hours of surveillance, Y amount of “combat hours” flown, etc.
If you can find one operator or tactician who’s flown alongside JSTARS in the past decade that has gained situational awareness or reaped any benefit from having them flying in circles for a half-day, raise your hand. #crickets
This isn’t just about the airframe, it’s also about personnel management. These hard-working crews and maintainers could be better utilized.
We say it’s time to double-down and do innovation via subtraction. As a contingency to retiring these 4 JSTARS, Congress should direct that half of the Air Force's claimed money saved be put into accelerating space-based wide-area GMTI (or declassifying that it already exists in some way, shape, or form).
Somehow, the US government has developed, deployed, and flown a helicopter on freakin’ Mars…but still hasn’t figured out how to replace the niche capability JSTARS supposedly provides? Hmm.