Intelligence: The Flying Detective

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December 2, 2009: In Afghanistan, American aircraft equipped with radar (that can see what's on the ground), are tailing Taliban suspects driving through remote areas. Operators in these JSTARS aircraft 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 a battle, or meeting with Taliban leaders. JSTARS is real good at picking up trucks moving along highways on flat terrain, but the equipment has now been tweaked to deal with the mountains and valleys so common in Afghanistan. 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.

Earlier in Iraq, JSTARS were 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 could not track back then. But tracking the movement of vehicles in western Iraq, in the middle of night, proved useful. When the JSTARS crew (of 18 equipment and surveillance specialists) spots something, they can alert combat troops on the ground, or a nearby UAV, to take a closer look. JSTARS can also send its data to computer terminals on the ground, in army brigade or division headquarters.

Initially designed at the end of the Cold War to track NATO and Soviet armed forces in the dreaded (but ultimately avoided) World War III, JSTARS first saw action during the 1991 Gulf War, and proved very useful. For the last six years, JSTARS has proved remarkably effective in Iraq. For example, in the last year of heavy fighting, E-8s flew about 20,000 hours over Iraq. That means that, two-thirds of the time in 2007-8, a JSTARS aircraft was in the air over Iraq. 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. From 2003-6, E8s averaged about a hundred hours a week over Iraq.

JSTARS has proved to be remarkably flexible. It is known that the E-8 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. 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 several modes; wide area (showing a 25 by 20 kilometer area), detailed (4,000 by 5,000 meters) and multiple (up to fourteen 10x10 kilometer areas). The radar can see out to several hundred kilometers and each screen of information could be saved and brought back later to compare to another view (to see what has moved). The JSTARS radar can now be adjusted to detect people on foot. JSTARS now has a second, synthetic aperture radar, that can take photo like pictures of small areas on the ground.

The U.S. Air Force is planning on using its E-8 JSTARS ground radar aircraft for another 60 years. That would see some of these aircraft retiring after 70 years of service. Since the E8 is based on the Boeing 707 airliner (a 1950s design), this would result in that aircraft type still being in the air more than a century after it first entered service.

The air force has 17 JSTARs, each costing about $366 million. The crews consist of active duty and reserve personnel. If the E-8s do stay in service another 60 years, they will no doubt get new engines, refurbished airframes, and possibly so much automation that they will eventually fly without crews, having been turned into UAVs. JSTARS is also being fitted with a higher performance radar. The new equipment can spot smaller targets, as well as use heat sensing.

 

 


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