Congress’ stop-gap, piecemeal approach to fiscal year 2011 funding and the push to trim the overall federal budget are creating sizeable ripples across the federal landscape.
But those ripples are more like bow waves in the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base. What might be a nagging inconvenience to most military units could place a choke hold on the local wing’s future … particularly as another Air Force study looms to determine the way ahead in the vital C2ISR arena.
Since Oct. 1 of last year, the federal government – including the Defense Department – has been operating under a succession of continuing resolutions. Congress passed the latest measure on Wednesday, extending the flow of money for another two weeks past a March 4 deadline.
While the temporary allocation grants a stay of execution and provides some breathing room, it does little to reassure supporters of the 116th who face programmatic, longer-term benchmarks.
The 116th – a unique blend of Georgia Air National Guard and Air Force active duty elements – is the nation’s only Joint STARS wing. The unit has been a critical C2ISR – command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – weapon in the war on terror. Aircraft and people from the 116th have been constantly deployed to Southwest Asia since shortly after the Sept. 22, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
But that critical contribution has been hampered by tired, finicky, aging engines that power the system’s Boeing 707 airframe. The 40-year-old power plants require constant maintenance and do not deliver the propulsion or efficiency to enable Joint STARS to maximize its impact over the war zone.
Fiscal year 2011 was to be a significant year for Joint STARS funding. The budget request contained almost $127 million for continuing the re-engining process. Another $50.4 million was programmed to address diminishing manufacturing sources for prime mission equipment. About $16 million was allocated for various modifications and updates.
That’s all in question. At the same time, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley recently announced an “extensive review” of future C2ISR needs. He said the review will “focus on the balance between manned and unmanned sensor platforms” and the manpower needed to support “steady-state ISR requirements.”
Col. William Welsh, who commands the Guard element of the 116th, shares at least some of the apprehensions emerging from the current climate.
“We don’t have any idea how the budget will flush out,” he indicated. “We don’t know when we might get a signed budget. We might be on a CR the entire year. Then, who knows what fiscal year 2012 and beyond might hold.”
The study outcome is also uncertain.
“I really don’t know what to expect,” Welsh said. “But in my opinion, to do the mission we do today, we need a similar platform – a platform of similar size and capability. That would be either an upgraded (Joint STARS) or a similar size new platform. That’s just my opinion.”
That said, the linkage of budget concerns and uncertainty about the future of C2ISR raises an uncomfortable question: Why spend more than $190 million in 2011 on a system that could be replaced in the future – perhaps by an unmanned platform? Welsh conceded that Air Force planners and lawmakers might ask that question.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” he noted. “I just wish we had a crystal ball.”
Welsh expects the study to be completed by September. But the budget deliberations could drag on much longer … and ultimately shape or override what Air Force planners decide to do.
The 2011 re-engining funds – part of the more than $1 billion needed to re-engine all 17 Joint STARS aircraft – was designed to keep the program alive until a final decision is made.
“If (ultimately) there is no money and no way to keep it going,” Welsh said, “then it is dead on arrival.”
The commander is clear on some factors affecting Joint STARS, a unit with some 2,800 members and the largest flying operation at Robins. One is the health of the airframe. Although the Boeing 707 has logged more than 50 years, the Joint STARS aircraft were “zero timed” before conversion to the C2ISR role. Assessments support at least another 25 years of use, perhaps another 40.
Even if budget restraints ease and a new system is identified to replace Joint STARS, he believes lead times mean that the 116th will likely be flying for a number of years.
“If they decide to procure a new airplane, that won’t happen quickly,” Welsh pointed out. “Development and production would take 10 to 15 years at least.”
In the meantime – and amidst all of the uncertainty – Welsh said the 116th plans to continue performing its critical C2ISR role.
“There’s a lot at stake in the fiscal year 2011 budget – not only for us but for other systems as well,” he said. “There’s a lot of discussion about the way ahead and what we are going to do. But we’ll just keep doing the mission until someone tells us to do something different.”