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Senate, House agreement kills new planes for J-STARS; Scott blames Perdue

A J-STARS training aircraft is pictured on the flight line at Robins Air Force Base in 2014.
A J-STARS training aircraft is pictured on the flight line at Robins Air Force Base in 2014.

An agreement between members of the U.S. House and Senate kills plans to buy new aircraft for the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System at Robins Air Force Base.

The agreement released Monday came from a committee of House and Senate representatives to reconcile differences between each body’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets defense policy for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1. The House version called for buying new planes while the Senate version did not.

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Republican whose district includes Robins, blamed U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Georgia Republican from Houston County. Scott, a longtime vocal advocate for J-STARS recapitalization, said Perdue withdrew his support for new planes.

Scott and Perdue both served on the committee that reached the agreement.

“I think we did everything we could, but the bottom line is David doesn’t support recap anymore,” Scott said in a telephone interview with The Telegraph. “If David said yes, it would have happened.”

The agreement calls for J-STARS to fly until 2028, and the Air Force is required to keep at least six J-STARS aircraft available for combat missions at all times.

In a release, Perdue defended his stance on the agreement, noting that the Advance Battlefield Management System that will provide future alternative to J-STARS will be based at Robins.

“While I have always supported the J-STARS recap, we have a new president, defense secretary and Air Force Secretary who have presented a better long-term solution,” he said in the release. “The Advance Battlefield Management System will give us the capability to access both restricted and non-restricted airspace. This is a necessity in supporting our troops in harm’s way as well as our overall intelligence gathering. With the solution I support, we save J-STARS jobs, maintain the J-STARS fleet into the next decade, accelerate the implementation of (Advance Battlefield Management System, and gain a new mission for Robins. All of this guarantees a very bright future for my hometown base. Anyone who doesn’t see that this plan is a huge win for Robins is more concerned with their next election than our long-term national security and Robins’ long-term viability.”

Scott said he isn’t giving up on the possibility that J-STARS recapitalization could be restarted, but he said it will have to happen in the next couple of years. He noted that the compromise bill includes funding to continue development of a new radar for J-STARS, although not the planes. Scott said that leaves some hope that recapitalization could still be on the table in the future.

The 21st Century Partnership, an independent group that works to protect jobs at Robins, estimates J-STARS is responsible for about 3,000 jobs at the base when support personnel are included.

On June 6, the Air Force announced Robins would get a new mission to be called the Advanced Battle Management System, which would manage current and future alternatives to the J-STARS mission of battlefield surveillance and reconnaissance, including drones.

Scott said he has not gotten any answers as to how many jobs the Advanced Battle Management System would provide or whether it would include the Georgia Air National Guard, which jointly operates J-STARS with the active-duty Air Force. He also said the Air Force estimates that new J-STARS alternatives might not be ready until 2035, leaving a capability gap.

Scott said if J-STARS goes away, it would leave Robins without a combat flying mission, which he said could have ramifications in the event of a Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

“I do not believe you want to be an Air Force base without a flying mission when you go into a round of BRAC,” Scott said.

The Air Force had already made clear that it wanted to stop the J-STARS recapitalization in favor of pursuing other alternatives, but Scott and others in Congress have continued to advocate for buying new J-STARS planes. The primary criticism of J-STARS has been that it cannot operate against a foe that can shoot down aircraft. Perdue, while expressing support for J-STARS, addressed this in a recent editorial that appeared in The Telegraph.

“We’ve seen Russia and China modernize their air defenses to keep our specialized capabilities farther from potentially contested locations,” he wrote. “As a result, there are vast areas of the globe the current J-STARS fleet cannot penetrate today or in the future. Our military needs a system that can provide the key capabilities of the J-STARS platform into these anti-access areas.”

J-STARS flies over enemy territory and provides ground commanders with information on enemy movements. Army personnel fly with J-STARS to communicate that information to troops on the ground. J-STARS has been heavily used in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.