Flying thousands of feet in the sky and zooming sensors in on enemy movement below, the Air Force manned Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System has been using advanced technology to gather and share combat-relevant information, circle above military operations and share key intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data with service command and control.
Since its combat missions during the Gulf War in the early 1990s, JSTARS has been an indispensable asset to combat operations, as it covers a wide swath of terrain across geographically diverse areas to scan for actionable intelligence and pertinent enemy activity.
JSTARS is able to acquire and disseminate graphic digital map displays, force tracking information, and – perhaps of greatest significance – detect enemy activity; information obtained can be transmitted via various data-links to ground command and control centers and, in many instances, connected or integrated with nearby drone operations.
An E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System returns from a mission at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, May 1, 2014. USAF photo by Senior Airman Jared Trimarchi.
The Northrop E-8C surveillance aircraft can identify an area of interest for drones to zero in on with a more narrow or "soda-straw" sensor view of significant areas below. JSTARS can detect enemy convoys, troop movements, or concentrations and pinpoint structures in need of further ISR attention.
The JSTARS mission is of such significance that the Air Force is now evaluating multiple industry proposals to recapitalize the mission with a new, high-tech, next-generation JSTARS plane to serve for decades into the future.
"We have been able to extend the life of some of the legacy ones, but this does not change the fact that we need new platforms as quickly as we can," Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Acquisition, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
The Air Force plans for new JSTARS to be operational in 2024.
Airmen with the 12th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, perform pre-flight ops checks on an E-8C Joint STARS. Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Roger Parsons
JSTARS is a critical airborne extension of the Theater Air Control System and provides Ground Moving Target Indicator data to the ISR Enterprise, Air Force official Capt. Emily Grabowski told Scout Warrior.
Ground Moving Target Indicator, GMTI, is another essential element of JSTARS technology which can identify enemy movements below.
"Combatant Commanders require unique command and control, and near real-time ISR capabilities to track the movement of enemy ground and surface forces," she explained.
Grabowski emphasized that the JSTARS recap will be a commercial derivative aircraft designed to keep pace with rapid technological changes and reduce life-cycle costs for the service.
A pilot with the 461st Air Control Wing (ACW), inspects a new iPad holder designed for use on the E-8C Joint STARS. Photo by Senior Master Sgt. Roger Parsons.
JSTARS uses Synthetic Aperture Radar to bounce an electromagnetic "ping" off of the ground and analyze the return signal to obtain a "rendering" or picture of activity below. Since the electronic signals travel at the speed of light – which is a known entity – an algorithm can then calculate the time of travel to determine the distance, size, shape, and movement of an object or enemy threat of high value.
JSTARS planes, which have been very active supporting combat operations in Afghanistan, have flown 130,000 combat mission hours since 9/11.
Although initially constructed as a Cold War technology to monitor Soviet Union tank movements in Eastern Europe, the JSTARS has proven very helpful in key areas such as near North Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The platform has also succeeded in performing maritime missions in the pacific theater, Southcom, and Central Command areas of responsibility.
The JSTARS has been able to help meet the fast-expanding maritime demand for ISR and command and control due to an upgrade of its radar to Enhanced Land/Maritime Mode, Air Force officials said.
An E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System lands at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, May 1, 2014. USAF photo by Senior Airman Jared Trimarchi.
The current JSTARS is based on a four-engine Boeing 707. Of the 16 JSTARS currently in the Air Force inventory, 11 of them are operational. The JSTARS is the only platform technically able to simultaneously perform command and control as well as ISR, Air Force developers describe.
The crew of an existing JSTARS, which can go up to 21 people or more, includes a navigator, combat systems operator, intelligence officers, technicians, and battle management officers. However, technology has advanced to the point wherein a smaller crew size will now be able to accomplish more missions with less equipment and a lower hardware footprint. Advanced computer processing speeds and smaller components, when compared with previous technologies, are able to perform more missions with less hardware.
Northrop Grumman is offering a Gulfstream G550 jet engineered with a common software baseline to allow for rapid integration of emerging commercial technologies. By building their aircraft with a set of standardized IP protocol, the aircraft is designed to accommodate new software and hardware as it becomes available.
Sized smaller than other offerings, the G550 is intended to fly at higher altitudes and operate with less fuel, Northrop developers said.
Gulfstream G550. Image from Gulfstream.
"Our G550 business jet can fly higher and see more to prosecute more targets without any added cost. Its agility and size allows it to be closer to the fight because it can base at two times the number of bases that heavy aircraft can fit in," Alan Metzger, Vice President, Next-Generation Surveillance and Targeting, Northrop Grumman, told Scout Warrior.
Higher altitude missions can widen the aperture of a sensor's field-of-view, therefore reaching wider areas to surveil.
Northrop's G550 JSTARS have flown 500 hours and gone through simulated inflight refueling behind KC-135 and KC-10 tanker aircraft. Developers say the aircraft has all-weather performance ability, provides VHF/UFH radio operations and optimizes radar performance with a layout creating no blockage from engine cowlings or wings.
The G55O is compliant to wide area surveillance common open architecture radar processing system requirements, Northrop officials said. Along with General Dynamics-owned Gulfstream, L3 is also partnering with Northrop on the JSTARS recap.
US Air Force aircrew member with the 116th Air Control Wing, Georgia Air National Guard, swaps out imagery discs during pre-flight aboard the E-8C Joint STARS aircraft. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Regina Young
Lockheed's Bombardier business jet, built by Sierra Nevada, offers a modified Global 600 aircraft with Raytheon-built battle management systems.
The aircraft is 94-feet long and can operate with a 100,000-pound take off gross weight; Lockheed developers claim the Global 6000, which currently flies in the Air Force inventory as the E-11A, can reach a range of 6,000 nautical miles and altitudes of 51,000 feet.
Lockheed also emphasizes that their offering places a premium on common standards and open architecture.
"Rather than using unique or customized hardware and software approaches adapted to an open systems architecture environment, our architecture is truly open and free of proprietary interfaces. This allows us to leverage state-of-the-art commercial technology to expedite integration of capabilities and minimize cost," a Lockheed statement said.
Boeing's JSTARS uses a 110-foot 737 able to reach altitudes of 41,000-feet. Developers say it can cruise at speeds of 445 knots and carry a maximum payload of 50,000-pounds. Like other offerings, Boeing's jet claims to accomplish an optimal size, weight, power and cooling ratio.