What’s Going on With JSTARS? Back to Tacit Blue?

Air Force officials said they plan to go ahead with source selection for the JSTARS Recapitalization program, but they are still considering alternatives that will allow the service to better meet combatant commanders' needs. Air Force photo by TSgt. John Lasky.

Senior Air Force leaders assured attendees at ASC17 that the JSTARS Recapitalization program is—for now—going head, but they acknowledged that they’re looking at alternatives.

“We are going ahead with source selection, so nothing has changed with respect to that,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters at a press conference. However, “We are not meeting combatant commander requirements,” she said, not elaborating on how, and so the service is asking, “Can we think about this in a new way?”

Wilson said there are “a lot more sources of information … in the airspace” that are not being harvested, which could be “aggregated” to perform some of the JSTARS battle management or ground moving target indicator (GMTI) requirement. Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein told reporters not to think in terms of “individual platforms” in meeting this need.

On Monday, USAF vice chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance Lt. Gen. Veralinn Jamieson, speaking on a panel to discuss “Big-Wing ISR,” said the re-look at the JSTARS mission is also driven by the threat. “The adversary gets a vote” and “adversary capabilities that have come online in the past couple of years have ensured that we take a hard look at” those capacities and US vulnerabilities, she said.

Service sources said peer nations are developing systems specifically to neutralize or destroy capital ISR systems like JSTARS, so a networked system that can endure some attrition is a preferable idea.

Jamieson told Air Force Magazine that what she called “publicly available information”—she dislikes the term “social media”—is enormously valuable for “pattern of life” and other functions. What about places like North Korea? “Eighty percent of what you’ve seen from North Korea” during the missile and nuclear testing crisis came from social media, she said. So what about that other 20 percent? Jamieson said, “You may need … an exquisite capability” for such work. In the early 1990s, the Air Force declassified the Northrop Grumman Tacit Blue, an experimental aircraft meant to supply, stealthily, the same kind of information eventually provided by JSTARS.

“So we’re going to take a look at this,”Wilson said of the aggregating concept, “and we’ve been open about it. Not … behind closed doors and secret.” The JSTARS competitors are fully aware of what’s going on, she said. USAF’s top uniformed acquisition official, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, told reporters in his own press conference that although JSTARS competitors have invested their own money in the program, USAF has footed the bill for most of it, including risk reduction on the radar. The JSTARS recap will continue as planned unless he is told otherwise, he said.

“We’re not almost in source selection, we’re in source selection,” he asserted, but he also acknowledged,“I can scrap the program … until I award a contract.” He added, “There’s a lot of things that have to happen before we make a final decision.”