The future of the American military’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) mission is in question. With adversaries like Russia and China updating their capabilities, legacy ISR military systems need updating as well.

Combatant commanders require solid Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance to plan and execute combat missions. Since the first Gulf War, the E8-C Joint STARS has been the platform of choice for providing that intelligence. This will now change.


Budgetary Constraints

The Department of the Air Force’s FY2022 budget request, released in May of this year, shows that the Air Force will divest four of the Joint Surveillance Target and Attack Radar System (JSTARS) in 2022. These cuts are proposed to offset the costs of next-gen fighter development. In addition to the JSTARS cuts, the service has plans to divest numerous legacy fighters, tankers, and drones. In total, the branch will save $1.3 billion. In the meantime, the Department of Defense has to address ISR for combatant commanders.


Legacy ISR

Since first flying in Desert Storm in 1991, the JSTARS has been the go-to platform for the southwest Asia ground ISR. Developed as a joint project between the U.S. Army and USAF, JSTARS provides real-time surveillance and target acquisition, and acts as a stand-off command and control center. The JSTARS employs a phased-array, side-looking radar that allows the mapping of ground targets more than 250 km away

Airman 1st Class Jeremy Cole, 379th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, marshals an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System that landed Oct. 20, 2016, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, following a mission supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. (Photo by Senior Airman Miles Wilson/USAF)

The Air Force acquired the airframes for the J-STARS program in the 1980s from various airlines around the world. One platform was given to President Nixon on his first visit to China, and another was previously used to haul livestock somewhere in the Middle East. On hot, humid days, you could still smell farm animals on some planes.

Built on the Boeing 707-300 platform, the J-STARS that rolled off production lines in Louisiana and Florida were already aged. Though only in operation for 25 years, the aircraft is obsolescent, and its capabilities are not well-suited to emerging threats, particularly from China. 


The RECAP Plan

A plan was in place, simply known as “JSTARS RECAP“, to phase out existing platforms and replace them with a new, as yet undetermined, platform. Expected to save the Air Force $11 billion over the life of the program, RECAP was halted in the 2019 defense authorization bill.

In 2015 budget requests, the Air Force proposed taking five JSTARS out of service, and retire one test aircraft. This plan would save over $700 million, to be used to acquire a successor to the aging E-8. 

Instead, a system-of-systems approach will be used to achieve an advanced battle management system (ABMS). Using existing platforms and cloud technology, the services aim to create an AI web that allows for near-instantaneous communication and decision-making. ABMS is a plan to use a blend of hardware, software, infrastructure, and policy to develop new techniques to achieve ISR requirements for the future. 

The Air Force has already conducted ABMS efforts to test innovative command and control ideas. In December of 2019, both Army radar sets and Navy destroyers relayed information to F-22 and F-35 fighters, and highlighted the Space Force’s Unified Data Library.

Unified Data Library is a cloud-based system that combines ground- and space-based sensors to track satellites. In three other on-ramp demonstrations, the Air Force defeated cruise missiles, used the KC-46 Pegasus tanker as a tactical relay station, and integrated the British, Polish, and Dutch air forces in combined air operations.    

U.S. Air Force Airmen speak with reporters on the new innovative Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) Onramp 2, September 2, 2020, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. The effect ABMS is attempting to achieve is Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2). JADC2 is meant to accelerate the speed of the kill chain by connecting sensors to shooters. ABMS is the digital infrastructure that allows a level of connectivity and [sensor] compatibility for our military at war. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Daniel Hernandez)

Though money has already been spent toward the RECAP program, the majority was spent by Boeing, Northrup, and Lockheed. The companies were vying for the RECAP contracts, with Boeing envisioning the 737 as the basis for multiple new mission-aircraft. It isn’t likely the Air Force will sign on to another aircraft acquisition deal, though.

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The Future of American ISR

With strides being made in software and artificial intelligence, the idea of a system-of-systems for ISR makes increasing more sense.

Software upgrades to existing systems and new cutting-edge technologies give the services exponentially more options for integration. Systems-of-systems take the various intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities available and combine them into a net of information available not only to the planners, but the actively engaged warfighter.