AJC Political Insider, February 15, 2018

WASHINGTON —

Georgia’s defense-focused lawmakers on Capitol Hill are gearing up for a fight after the Pentagon proposed cancelling the contract to replace a prized surveillance aircraft housed at Robins Air Force base that supports roughly 2,500 jobs.

Members of the delegation are livid that the Defense Department asked Congress to kill a program to upgrade the aging fleet of E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS, in its Monday budget request for the 2019 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Several local lawmakers indicated they would move to block the proposal – or at least put strings on it — in the upcoming defense policy and spending bills while seeking more answers from the Air Force.

“Obviously it’s a situation where we as Congress have a say in what happens,” said Tifton Republican Austin Scott, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee and whose 8th Congressional District includes Robins. “I disagree with the Air Force’s decision and I’m going to continue to work with my colleagues up here for the recapitalization of the JSTARS.”

The planes are old 707 passenger aircraft upgraded with high-grade radar and surveillance equipment. They’ve been used heavily in the fight against the Islamic State — they are housed exclusively at Robins while not deployed — but have reportedly been plagued with maintenance headaches as of late.

The Air Force had for years been planning to replace the fleet, and the defense contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman have been vying for the nearly $7 billion contract to engineer and manufacture the next generation planes.

But Air Force officials last year began publicly questioning whether that approach made sense given recent technological innovations and the rapidly increasing capabilities of other countries such as Russia and China.

The Air Force said this week it would instead like to utilize other systems it already has available to conduct similar work tracking ground targets, according to Defense News.

Georgia lawmakers disagree with the Air Force’s assessment. They argue there is no other “battle-ready” technology available today that could match the surveillance capabilities of the JSTARS.

“There is no alternative for JSTARS and indicators of its retirement are unacceptable. Without this capability, we greatly diminish our nation’s airpower and reduce our combat strength,” a handful of Georgia lawmakers, including Scott and new Senate Armed Services Committee member David Perdue, wrote in a searing letter to Defense Secretary James Mattis last year.

They think the Pentagon should keep the plane’s replacement work going on as planned until a better alternative is ready.

“The Air Force supported this essential program for years and the need hasn’t changed,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger, a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Pentagon.

The current fleet of planes supports roughly 2,500 jobs, including aircrews, surveillance specialists and maintenance personnel, and generates more than $204 million in annual economic benefits for Georgia, according to federal figures.

Congress must approve the program’s cancellation. Lawmakers have been able to limit the Pentagon from killing the program in the past – or at least put strings on officials should they move to try. The 2018 defense policy bill greenlit $417 million for the JSTARS replacement work and nearly $37 million for maintaining the plane’s current fleet.

Georgia lawmakers will likely pursue similar language in the upcoming 2019 bill.

“Certainly it’s easier when the Air Force includes (funding for the JSTARS replacement work) in their budget,” said Scott. “But we’ve fought this fight before.”