April 14, 2007:
In Iraq, the U.S. Air Force has
managed, over the last four years, to have a JSTARS ground radar aircraft in
the air two-thirds of the time. 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. Some
23,000 hours in the air over Iraq so far.
Some details have leaked out. For example, the
JSTARS 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 air force has 17 JSTARs, each costing about
$366 million. The crews consist of active duty and reserve personnel.