Intelligence: July 23, 2002

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The Eyes Up There- When American troops went into Afghanistan, they had 90 years of experience with aerial reconnaissance. But it was only in the 1990s that the recon systems were available to effectively support the kind of war the Special Forces and commandos were going to fight. Billions of dollars were invested in space satellites for reconnaissance, but these systems lacked one very important ability; they could not hang around. The kind of reconnaissance needed for fighting the Taliban had to be persistent. Even reconnaissance aircraft or helicopters were unable to do that. Indeed, your average recon aircraft was outfitted like a low flying satellite, using cameras and other sensors to record what was down there as it quickly flew over enemy territory. But the recon drones that had been used, off and on, for over three decades, had finally gotten to the point where they were reliable enough to consistently operate for hours (12-24) over enemy held territory. Moreover, the drones were quiet and small enough to go unnoticed, especially at night. Electronics have gotten smaller, cheaper and more powerful every year for the last half century, and this culminated in the kind of powerful and reliable sensors a small drone aircraft could carry. Drones like the Predator were providing real time video, which could be seen in the Pentagon, White House and anywhere else if you knew what satellite the feed was bounced off and what the decryption codes were. The other really useful recon gadget was the E-8 JOINT STARS (or JSTARS). Like the AWACS, this aircraft had a radar, but on the bottom of the aircraft, rather than a saucer shaped device on the top. The primary task of J-STARS is tracking ground activity and was designed to better integrate air and ground operations by quickly locating targets for our aircraft and coordinating those attacks with friendly ground operations. The radar has two modes; wide area (showing a 25 by 20 kilometer area) and detailed (4,000 by 5,000 meters). The radar could see out to several hundred kilometers and each screen full of information could be saved and brought back later to compare to another view. In this manner, operators could track movement of ground units. Operators could also use the detail mode to pick out specifics details of ground units (fortifications, buildings, vehicle deployments, etc.). While the JSTARS didn't arrive on the scene until the first week of November, 2001 (when the Taliban were on the brink of collapse), the aircraft quickly made it difficult for the Taliban to move their troops around by truck, even at night. While JSTARS was often unable to see into mountain passes, much of Afghanistan is flat. JSTARS is real good at picking up trucks moving along highways on flat terrain. And 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.

 


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