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​SSgt. Jessica Horton, right, and MSgt. Ken Menefee, communication systems technicians with the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing, monitor tracking data from their operator work station aboard an E-8C JSTARS on Aug. 20, 2015. ANG photo by SMSgt. Roger Parsons.

​The Air Force should focus on building the right systems before selecting the appropriate aircraft to replace the aging E-8 JSTARS ground surveillance aircraft, according to a new AFA Mitchell Institute report. “In many ways, the airframe is the least challenging aspect of this program,” states the paper, authored by retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute. The JSTARS replacement will “have to grapple with how it will fit into future distributed operations, how it will allow for open systems architecture, and accommodate the ability to update key technologies and capabilities as time progresses,” wrote Deptula. The existing JSTARS fleet is made up of 40-year-old converted Boeing 707s, and, “At any given time, half of the 16 E-8s in the force … are undergoing maintenance,” states the report. But age isn’t the only concern. The lack of adaptability in its on-board systems also is an issue that must be addressed. The new aircraft must be able to integrate with fifth generation aircraft such as the F-35 and F-22, the service’s new B-21 Long Range Strike-Bomber, as well as satellites, ground and naval assets, so USAF must consider its ability to accommodate future modular technologies packages, states the paper. “Aircraft selection must be influenced by a holistic evaluation of efficiency, operational effectiveness, and adaptability to new advanced technologies,” states the paper. (See also: Speeding Up JSTARS Replacement.)