The proposed national defense budget released Monday would kill plans to buy new planes for J-STARS, the only flying mission at Robins Air Force Base.
The unit is responsible for about 3,000 jobs at the base, including 1,200 active duty personnel, 1,000 guardsmen and other support personnel, said Dan Rhoades, director of strategy for the 21st Century Partnership, which advocates for Robins.
Rhoades said he is hopeful that Congress will ultimately keep new planes for J-STARS in the budget.
"They are not convinced the Air Force has made their argument well," he said.
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Eighth District U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Republican whose district includes Robins, also said he is optimistic that new J-STARS planes will ultimately be in the budget. He pointed out that the Air Force once cut A-10s from its proposed budget and Congress restored that funding in the final budget.
"Now their position is that they can't live without the A-10s," Scott said.
He said the Air Force can develop other surveillance platforms even if it continues with J-STARS, or Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.
"The J-STARS mission works and we need redundancy," he said. "I would believe in that mission even if it wasn’t at Robins."
The recapitalization program had called for buying 17 new planes at an estimated cost of $7 billion. The Air Force has already spent $265 million on the program, with another $400 million planned for this year.
The move to cut the J-STARS recap is not a surprise. Word leaked out last year that Air Force leaders were reconsidering. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has publicly questioned whether J-STARS is the best way to fulfill the mission of battlefield surveillance, particularly in a future conflict against a foe that can shoot down aircraft.
Drones are considered one leading alternative to J-STARS, and Rhoades and Scott both pointed out that drones wouldn't be survivable in a contested environment either.
Even if the J-STARS recapitalization is cut in the final budget, it won't be going away anytime soon. The Air Force plans to keep it flying into the mid-2020s. Rhoades said the planes, which are decades old, are certified to fly until 2030.
The 21st Century Partnership, which advocates for Robins, and members of the Georgia congressional delegation have argued that any replacement for J-STARS be based at Robins. However, Rhoades said if the Air Force does turn to a platform such as drones for a replacement, that would not equal the amount of jobs from J-STARS.