An unlikely intelligence collection aircraft in Iraq is the JSTARS,
which recently passed the 20,000 hour mark over there. That's over a thousand
sorties. 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.
details have leaked out. For example, the JSTARS radar has been used to track
where the attackers 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 look at 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 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.
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.
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.