The Air Force's delayed multibillion-dollar program to replace its aging E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) fleet may finally be dead. The value of the program had been criticized by some service officials, including Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and the head of Air Combat Command, General Mike Holmes.
The publication Defense News reported Saturday that the Pentagon plans to kill the JSTARS recapitalization program in its fiscal 2019 budget submission, and instead push for "a system-of-systems that will link together existing platforms to track ground targets and do command and control." The publication cited sources familiar with the 2019 budget request, which is expected to be released Monday.
The lucrative JSTARS recap competition, which has essentially been on hold since September, pits teams from three companies against each other — Northrop Grumman (the incumbent), Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The engineering and manufacturing development contract for the next-generation JSTARS is worth about $6.9 billion.
The Air Force didn't respond to a request from CNBC for comment.
In November, Secretary Wilson said a new JSTARS when operational would likely meet "less than one percent" of the requirements for combatant commanders.
Also in November, Holmes — a four-star general — raised questions about the value of a new JSTARS in contested airspace.
"How will we fight and how will we close the kill chain in a highly contested environment in a world we live in now, where, if war kicked off in northern Europe, the NATO soldiers and coalition soldiers would already be underneath that umbrella provided by an integrated air defense?" Holmes said. "Our conclusion is, that none of those systems that were fielded now, including our current JSTARS or a replacement JSTARS, would give us the capability to do that."
Still, Congress has made efforts to retain the JSTARS recap program, including funding it in the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) signed by President Donald Trump in December.
The fiscal 2018 NDAA authorized $700 billion in defense spending - including more than $400 million for the JSTARS recap and about $37 million to service the existing legacy fleet.
The Trump administration is expected Monday to propose a $716 billion defense budget for fiscal 2019, or a 7 percent increase from the previous year request. The Pentagon's base budget for fiscal 2019 is expected to be about $597 billion.
The current JSTARS plane is based on a Boeing 707-300 airframe that Northrop modified with radar and electronic equipment to track enemy ground vehicles and collect intelligence and surveillance for airstrikes.
The first E-8C JSTARS were used in 1991 during the first Gulf War under President George H.W. Bush, and have bene used more recently to track Islamic State terrorists in Iraq and Syria. There have been reports of maintenance problems with the aging fleet of 16 planes, including metal fatigue in components.
Defense News noted that each of the companies vying to become prime contractors on the new JSTARS have already "invested millions of dollars of their own funds to hone their designs and were awaiting source selection by the government."
Last month, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said during the company's fourth-quarter earnings call that the defense giant's "investment supports the priority we have placed in capturing future franchise programs," and he identified the "JSTARS recapitalization" as one of several "important opportunities."
Even so, the Pentagon may opt to go with a drone-based surveillance system that also combines additional capabilities from satellite systems. Regardless, unmanned aircraft could be potentially vulnerable to enemy defenses.