Since early 2005 the US Air Force has been using a new tool in the battle against IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). The US Air Force Joint STARS (JSTARS) E-8 aircraft have been constantly active in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, and has been doing a lot more than just looking at vehicle traffic on the ground.
Last year JSTARS radar aircraft were used to track down terrorist bombers in Iraq. This is done by using the JSTARS radar to track where the attackers go after an attack. 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 track a smaller area. 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). In this manner, operators could track movement of ground units over a wide area. Operators could 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. There has always been at least one JSTARS operating in Iraq.
Now JSTARS is being used to detect potential attacks. The post mission analysis of the collected data during an IED attack provides information about the scheme of maneuver before the attack was launched. These collected movement patterns are used to predict such attacks and therefore protect US troops against their effects. In addition the persistent wide area coverage enables US troops to track down the infrastructure behind those attacks. This information helps to destroy the insurgent networks behind the IED attacks. However, the US Air Force has not released any information about the effectiveness of this new applied tactic over the last year. This is probably because such information could make it easier for the terrorists to deceive the JSTARS.
This is a fairly new approach in the usage of the Joint STARS. The conceptual origin of the system can be found in the Cold War, where the system should provide a detailed ground truth to the NATO military leaders in the case of an attack of the Warsaw Treaty. Until late 2004 the system's operational usage was therefore limited to this real time surveillance role. The Joint STARS saw their first operational engagement during the Iraq War in 1990. Further missions followed over Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and then since 2003 in Iraq again. In all those conflicts Joint STARS was an essential component for the information superiority of the US forces. - Joachim Hofbauer