The Air Force hasn't found the money to modernize or replace its 1990s-era Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System planes, but a small consolation prize could be coming. Congress is poised to add up to $10 million to the 2014 budget to keep the fleet’s test plane flying out of Melbourne International Airport, Fla. The Air Force and prime contractor Northrop Grumman maintain a team there to try out new equipment before it's installed throughout the fleet.
A Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System plane. (Credit: Northrop Grumman)
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Georgia, convinced the Senate Armed Services Committee to add $9.9 million to the White House budget request to keep the test plane, known as T-3, flying through 2014. His state is home to the Air Force wings that operate JSTARS.
“Senator Chambliss sees a valid requirement to retain the T-3 test aircraft in service,” spokeswoman Lauren Claffey said by email.
The House Appropriations Committee does too. Its version of the 2014 defense bill provides $10 million for the same purpose.
There’s just one problem. With no modernization work on the books for 2014, there won’t be much to test aside from minor software upgrades. That’s why the Air Force figured it should put the test plane in storage for a year while it sorted out the fleet’s future, an Air Force official said.
Backers worry that if T-3 is put in storage they might never get it back. With continued flights, they wouldn’t have the stress of reassembling a team of test experts if modernization work is funded, and in the meantime they wouldn’t have to divert any of the fleet’s 16 operational planes to try out each new minor piece of software.
As it stands, the Air Force plans to keep flying the JSTARS planes into the 2020s. An Air Force analysis of alternatives suggested replacing them with a version built on a fuel-efficient business jet airframe, but the Air Force says it can't afford that option. "We simply do not have the resources," then-Air Force Secretary Michael Donley told Chambliss at a hearing last month.
Advocates have a long list of modernization work they’d like to see done on JSTARS short of a new fleet. At a minimum, the fleet’s avionics will need upgrading so the planes aren't banned from international airspace, an Air Force official said.
The JSTARS planes have an interesting history. They were built to bounce radar signals off the ground to find tanks and trucks racing across conventional battlefields. The planes detect the Doppler shifts from moving objects and display the locations of those objects as dots on digital maps. Commanders on the planes or on the ground can quickly decide where to move their forces and when to order strikes. That's called battle management. In Afghanistan, the planes have been used in intelligence roles, for example, to map patterns of life on roadways. More recently, advocates have been pushing JSTARS into new roles such as maritime surveillance.
The planes often do intelligence work, but they are not funded under the country's $50 billion Military Intelligence Program.