J-STARS Replacement Plan Comes with a Downside

June 08--ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE -- A plan to replace decades-old J-STARS planes could mean Tech Sgt. Mike Mclee's job as a jet engine mechanic will no longer be necessary, but he's willing to take the chance.

"I think it's great," he said of the prospect of getting new planes, as he worked on an engine Thursday. "It will make life a lot easier."

The Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System flies Boeing E-8Cs that were built in the 1960s. The Air Force's plan is to replace them with a smaller business class jet, which can operate more efficiently -- and with a smaller crew.

The downside is that fewer people will be needed in J-STARS, which now employs about 2,400 people. About 2,000 of those are active-duty airmen, and the rest are guardsmen and civilians. Starting in fiscal 2016, about 380 positions will be eliminated, and most of those are active duty.

That's because in order to pay for the new planes, the Air Force is retiring some of the current ones rather than paying for overhaul maintenance that will be coming due. The savings from the retirements will go toward buying the new planes.

So starting in October 2016, the fleet will be reduced from 16 planes to 11. The new planes are expected to be operational by 2022.

The Air Force has requested $73 million in the fiscal 2015 budget to establish a program office to acquire new planes. That money has been approved by the House and is awaiting Senate approval and the president's signature. J-STARS leaders are confident it will be approved.

J-STARS is jointly operated by the 461st Air Control Wing, an active-duty wing, and the 116th Air Control Wing, which is a Georgia Air National Guard unit.

One J-STARS plane can oversee a battle area the size of New York state and Delaware combined. It tracks enemy movements and relays that information to commanders on the ground.

It has detected enemy movements in blinding sandstorms while flying in Iraq. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, J-STARS has flown more than 100,000 combat flying hours. That's the equivalent of a single plane flying continuously for more than 11 years.

Col. Kevin Clotfelter, the 116th commander, and Col. Henry Cyr, the 461st commander, discussed the acquisition plans with The Telegraph last week. They said that while they can understand why the community doesn't like seeing fewer jobs at the base, the upgrade overall will be good for the area and the personnel in the unit.

"There are going to be concerns with change, but people should understand this is a vote of confidence in our mission," Cyr said. "In these tight fiscal times, the Department of Defense is voting with their money on the importance of this mission. There are many communities that would like to go through this."

Some of the job cuts may come through retirements, while some airmen will be moved to other jobs. The 461st will cut 250 active-duty airmen in fiscal 2016, while the 116th will cut 130 full- and part-time airmen from 2016 to 2019.

In recent years, major aircraft acquisitions by the Air Force have been fraught with delays and cost overruns.

However, the difference with getting the new J-STARS planes is that unlike the F-22, F-35 or KC-46 aerial tanker, J-STARS is not looking to build an entirely new plane, but modify an existing commercial jet.

The plan is to have new planes operational in eight years. That's fairly ambitious compared to other programs for new aircraft, but Cyr and Clotfelter said they do not foresee any problems meeting that goal.

The biggest issue likely won't be the plane but integrating the radar and electronics systems onto the smaller platform. Some have wondered whether a small jet can support the equipment needed, but Clotfelter said he is confident it can.

"The technology has come a long way," he said. "It's not as bulky, and there's not as much weight."

The Air Force has asked aircraft companies for proposals for planes that could fit the J-STARS needs. One of those is the Gulfstream G650. Gulfstream Chief Executive Larry Flynn told Flightglobal.com recently that the company planned to offer the G650 as the next J-STARS plane.

The Air Force is looking for an aircraft that will accommodate a crew of 10 to 13 personnel. About 18 people serve on the E-8C.

There are still uncertainties around the replacement program, the two commanders said. It's not known exactly how many aircraft will ultimately be purchased. That could depend on the cost per aircraft and the capability. Depending on that, J-STARS could end up with more or fewer aircraft than its current fleet. The goal is to end up with the same capability.

Cyr said the aim to reduce the fleet long before the new planes are delivered is a calculated risk that had to be taken in order to afford the new aircraft.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

Copyright 2014 - The Macon Telegraph