Electronic Weapons: E-8s To Retire At 70


December 25,2008: The U.S. Air Force has equipped its first E-8 JSTARS ground radar aircraft with new JT8D-219 engines (21,000 pounds of thrust). These replace JT3Ds (19,000 pounds of thrust). The new engines are not only 10 percent more powerful, but more reliable and easier to maintain. There are also upgrades inside the aircraft, replacing a lot of 1980s era electronics with modern gear.

All this is so the E-8 can serve for another 60 years. That would see some of these aircraft retiring after 70 years of service. Since the E8 is based on the Boeing 707 airliner (a 1950s design), this would result in that aircraft type still being in the air more than a century after it first entered service.

Initially designed at the end of the Cold War to track NATO and Soviet armed forces in the dreaded (but ultimately avoided) World War III, JSTARS first saw action during the 1991 Gulf War, and proved very useful. For the last five years, JSTARS has proved remarkably effective in Iraq. For example, in the last year, E-8s have flown about 20,000 hours over Iraq. That means that, two-thirds of the time over Iraq, a JSTARS aircraft has been in the air. One or two JSTARS have been stationed in the region since 2003. No one will say, officially, exactly what the JSTARS is doing, but whatever it is, it's been doing a lot of it for a long time. From 2003-6, E8s averaged about a hundred hours a week over Iraq.

JSTARS has proved to be remarkably flexible. It is known that the E-8 radar has been used to track where the terrorists go after an attack on American troops. Many of the attacks take place in sparely populated places, and at night. JSTARS can track vehicles on the ground over a wide area. For example, a single JSTARS can cover all of central Iraq, although its ground radar can only zoom in on a smaller area for useful information. The JSTARS radar has two modes; wide area (showing a 25 by 20 kilometer area) and detailed (4,000 by 5,000 meters). The radar can see out to several hundred kilometers and each screen full of information could be saved and brought back later to compare to another view (to see what has moved).

Operators can track movement of ground units, or individual vehicles, over a wide area. Operators can also use the detail mode to pick out specific details of what's going on down there, like tracking the movement of vehicles fleeing the scene of an ambush. JSTARS is real good at picking up trucks moving along highways on flat terrain. JSTARS can stay up there for over 12 hours at a time, and two or more JSTARS can operate in shifts to provide 24/7 coverage.

Apparently, JSTARS have been used to monitor the Syrian and Iranian borders for smugglers. Some stuff comes across the borders in trucks, but much still arrives on the back of animals, which JSTARS cannot track. But tracking the movement of vehicles in western Iraq, in the middle of night, has proved useful. When the JSTARS crew (of 18 equipment and surveillance specialists) spots something, they can alert combat troops on the ground to take a closer look.  

JSTARS can also send its data to computer terminals on the ground, in army brigade or division headquarters. JSTARS is also being fitted with a higher performance radar. The new equipment can spot smaller targets, although the air force won't say if this includes horses or camels, loaded with weapons, crossing the Syrian or Iranian border.  The E-8s have been in Afghanistan since 2002, and more of these aircraft are headed there, as operations in Iraq wind down.

The air force has 17 JSTARs, each costing about $366 million. The crews consist of active duty and reserve personnel. If the E-8s do stay in service another 60 years, they will get new engines, refurbished airframes, new electronics and possibly so much automation that they will eventually fly without crews, having been turned into UAVs.


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