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.