Electronic Weapons: JSTARS The Keeper

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December 20, 2011: The U.S. Air Force continues to pay whatever it takes to keep its 17 E-8C Joint STARS (JSTARS) ground surveillance aircraft in service. This costs about a million dollars a month per aircraft just for maintenance and technical support. Fuel and crew costs are additional. In addition, some E-18Cs are getting new engines. The new JT8D engines are modern designs similar to those used on commercial aircraft. The new engines will enable the E-8C to maintain the most effective altitude and burn less fuel doing it. The new engines also require less maintenance.

The air force is spending nearly $100 million on upgrading each of the E-8Cs operated by reservists (the Air National Guard). This includes some new engines, an Internet-like communications capability, long range optical sensors (like that on combat aircraft targeting pods), and the ability to search water surfaces. These aircraft are organized into three units, one of which is in the reserves. In the last decade, JSTARS have flown over 5,200 missions, averaging about 12 hours each.

The E-8 is a militarized Boeing 707 (a 1950s design also used for the KC-135 aerial tanker and other U.S. Air Force electronics warfare aircraft). The main capability is the JSTARS ground search radar. This system 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 can track the movement of ground vehicles or ships. Operators can also use the detail mode to pick out specific details of what's going on down there, like tracking the movement of many small missile boats trying to rush an American warship. 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.

The E-8C can be kept in service another 40 years, although will probably be replaced by cheaper, unmanned, aircraft in another decade or so. JSTARS first proved its worth during the 1991 Gulf War, where it accurately, and in real time, tracked the movement of Coalition and Iraqi ground forces. Most recently it was used in Libya and continues to operate over Afghanistan.

 


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