JSTARS flies high over Yugoslavia
- By Dan Verton
- May 30, 1999
RHEIN-MAIN AIR BASE, Germany - Finding Serb tanks and supply convoys in the mountains and wooded valleys of Kosovo, where poor weather often conceals the battlefield, is a daunting task for any pilot, regardless of skill level.
However, the Air Force's 60th Air Expeditionary Wing, stationed here at an airstrip adjacent to Frankfurt International Airport, has deployed a squadron of Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft, known as JSTARS, to help pilots flying in support of NATO's Operation Allied Force locate, track and attack Serb army units.
Using its sophisticated radar sensors and data communications systems, JSTARS function as mobile surveillance, reconnaissance and control centers, detecting enemy tanks, trucks and other targets on the ground and directing fighter/attack aircraft to them.
Flying far enough from what could be considered the front line in this air war but close enough to the action to require protection from fighter aircraft, JSTARS aircraft have contributed significantly to the success of Allied Force, and by most accounts they have proven their worth, Air Force officials said.
An Air Force technical sergeant, who goes by the call sign "Fairlane" and whose name is being withheld for security reasons, is a communications systems technician on one of the many JSTARS flight crews here. He said JSTARS represents what everybody in the Defense Department and the United States wants - information superiority that requires fewer people be sent into harm's way.
"This is what everybody was hoping for, and it is saving lives," Fairlane said. "There's no limit to how far the JSTARS program can go," he said. "It takes a lot to task a satellite to do the job. However, we're a really cheap version of a satellite."
"At this point, it looks like Serbian forces in Kosovo are hunkered down in no small measure because as soon as they move,
JSTARS spots them and they get blown up," said John Pike, a defense and intelligence analyst with the Federation of American Scientists. "While there are other sensors that can support targeting, JSTARS is pretty much the only one that provides continuous coverage...over all Kosovo," Pike said.
Depending on the mission, the modified Boeing Co. 707 airframe can hold a crew of 22 and links 17 Compaq Computer Corp. Digital Alpha-based operator workstations that control on-board sensors, communications, intelligence and radar to Army mobile ground stations. The workstations also control mobile command and control networks, such as the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, a secure voice and data network used by fighter aircraft, missile defense units and others.
The aircraft also holds a navigation workstation and carries a complement of Army specialists who communicate with forces on the ground that use special mobile JSTARS workstations.
According to Air Force Lt. Shawn Bishop, a communications and computer officer for JSTARS, "the plane has the capability to send images of moving targets and pictures and can tell the difference between wheeled and tracked vehicles." For example, regardless of weather conditions, the plane is able to identify whether a potential target moving down a road is a tank or a jeep - a capability that proved critical during the Persian Gulf War. "JSTARS was just a prototype during Desert Storm, and its performance there is what really sold it to Congress," Bishop said.
Each airplane is equipped with five Digital Alpha servers, which run the VAX operating system. However the JSTARS Computer Replacement Program, a contract between the JSTARS program office and Northrop Grumman Corp., will replace and upgrade the current servers, operator workstations, selected portions of the radar signal processor, the local-area network and other peripheral equipment. According to Bishop, the upgrades will consolidate the five servers into two rack-mount systems and also will transition the workstations over to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT operating system.
Using a keyboard and trackball, the technical sergeant can hook into various intelligence networks to receive real-time threat updates and data from intelligence collection agencies. He also can use two satellite communications radios that are capable of transmitting and receiving voice and data. From his workstation, Fairlane can run all necessary diagnostic tests and even tune the radar. Likewise, sensor workstation operators can overlay radar images on maps, or link live video feeds from unmanned aerial vehicles flying over a target.
"Everything is commercial off-the-shelf," Fairlane said. "We can upgrade all we want. In fact, software change requests can be completed within a matter of months," he said.
JSTARS aircraft fly missions that can last up to 24 hours. A single aircraft has enough surveillance capabilities on board, including a 26-foot-long phased-array radar antenna under the fuselage, to allow the senior surveillance director to "see" the entire area of Kosovo and more, according to Fairlane.
However, some analysts say mountainous areas such as Kosovo may be problematic at times for JSTARS, enabling forces to easily mask their presence behind hills and rugged terrain. JSTARS "is one of many capabilities we need, but obviously when you get into the kind of rugged terrain or a threat environment where it won't work, you'd better hope you didn't put all of your eggs into that basket," said a senior DOD official, who requested anonymity.
Although he has not done a complete analysis yet of JSTARS' performance in Kosovo, Pike said he agrees that terrain could be a limiting factor. "The big unknown at this point is the extent to which terrain masking is a problem, since that was a big factor in the somewhat disappointing performance of JSTARS in Bosnia," Pike said.
Despite the challenges and the fact that JSTARS aircraft take off in full view of the public at Frankfurt International Airport, "the Serbs might know we're coming, but they can't hide," Fairlane said.