Georgia lawmakers defend surveillance plane based in Warner Robins

The Pentagon has been eyeing alternatives to a long-standing plan to upgrade a fleet of surveillance aircraft housed at Robins Air Force Base, according to members of Georgia’s congressional delegation, who excoriated the news.

The state’s two U.S. senators and three House members wrote to Defense Secretary James Mattis late last week voicing their opposition to what they said were rumors that the Air Force “wishes to explore alternative intelligence and surveillance platforms” for replacing the current fleet of E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, also known as JSTARS.

Doing anything other than upgrading the planes as planned, the lawmakers said, would hurt the military’s surveillance capabilities and waste taxpayer money. They said there were no good alternatives and that the Pentagon should instead speed up its work.

“While the rationale for this decision has not yet been made known to us, cancelling or delaying would be ill-advised and directly impact our combatant commanders who employ this asset in theater,” the lawmakers wrote. “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.”

Georgia Republican U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson both signed onto the letter, dated Sept. 8, as did GOP U.S. Reps. Austin Scott and Tom Graves. Democratic U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop of Albany also joined the effort, which was first reported by Politico.

Making up the JSTARS fleet are 16 former 707 passenger aircraft that have been upgraded with high-grade radar and surveillance equipment. Based exclusively at Robins in Middle Georgia, the Air Force has been using the planes for decades to help accurately spot their ground targets in conflict zones, most recently in the fight against the Islamic State.

Protecting the planes — whose original frames have been out of production for almost 40 years — and clearing the way for their longtime planned upgrade has been one of the state congressional delegation’s top priorities in recent years.

“You can depend on our support for your efforts, but the direction the Air Force appears to be moving is simply wrong — more delay is not an option,” the group wrote to Mattis.

A Defense Department spokesman said the secretary will respond directly to the lawmakers if and when he receives the letter.

The Pentagon currently has plans to retool the entire fleet by the late 2020s, and the Air Force issued a request for proposals last year. Defense contractors Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Grumman have applied, according to Politico.

Georgia lawmakers have included language in recent legislation urging acceleration of the upgrade work. Earlier this week, Isakson and Perdue offered an amendment to the Senate’s annual defense policy bill that would bar the Pentagon from spending money on the retirement of JSTARS aircraft.

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