Joint STARS shines in battle

The new IT arsenal

As the United States builds up for war with Iraq, defense experts say that information technology is much different than it was during the Gulf War. This article is part of a series that examines changes in military IT during the past 12 years and culminates with in-depth coverage in the Feb. 24 issue of Federal Computer Week ["DOD deploys high-tech arsenal"].

A surveillance experiment tested in the skies over the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm has evolved into one of the Air Force's premier battle management, command and control systems.

The Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) passed those tests, and many since, said Maj. John Grivakis, Joint STARS functional manager at Air Combat Command, Langley Air Force Base.

Joint STARS is a long-range, air-to-ground surveillance system designed to locate, classify and track ground targets in all weather conditions. While flying in friendly airspace, the joint Army-Air Force program can look deep into hostile territory to detect and track ground movements.

The system consists of an Air Force E-8C aircraft—a remanufactured Boeing 707—an Army ground station and a data link connecting the two. It has a range of more than 150 miles, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Grivakis said the aircraft provide "wide-area surveillance" but would not comment on the exact range, which he said is classified. He did say that although the system did not receive initial operating capability until 1997—six years after it was used in the Gulf War—Joint STARS helped U.S. forces win some key Iraqi conflicts, including the battle for the town of Khafji, Saudi Arabia, in 1991.

The Joint STARS sensors and crew detected a follow-on force of numerous Iraqi vehicles heading toward Khafji, the site of one of Iraq's main offensive operations during the war. The Iraqi force was engaged and stopped by air and ground munitions, enabling U.S. commanders to retake the city by ensuring that additional Iraqi forces would not enter the battle.

Eye in the Sky Helps on the Ground

Retired Army Capt. John Hillen was the leader of a reconnaissance unit leading the charge against the Iraqi Republican Guard in the Gulf War, and said that his team relied heavily on the moving target intelligence that the experimental Joint STARS provided.

Hillen said his ground commander had direct links to the strategic system, and although it couldn't differentiate friendly forces from enemy, "we could see what was behind the next wave and how they were moving." And that saved U.S. lives, time and money.

The Air Force is still developing solutions that will differentiate friend and enemy forces on Joint STARS, Grivakis said. "The technology has still not evolved yet...and we need funding and a schedule to put it on board."

John Osterholz, director of architecture and interoperability in the Defense Department's Office of the Chief Information Officer, said the ground moving target indicators packages from Joint STARS are now used on other platforms, including helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

The helicopters and UAVs augment the big picture provided by Joint STARS, providing a small, localized, "soda straw" view, Grivakis said.

Today, Joint STARS has grown from the two aircraft used during Operation Desert Storm to a fleet of 14, with No. 15 due within a month, he said, adding that capabilities have grown along with the number of planes.

"Joint STARS went from surveillance only to a battle management platform...that can direct fighters and bombers onto [moving or fixed] targets," Grivakis said.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Cassity, former director of command, control, communications and computer systems for the Joint Staff during the Gulf War, agreed.

"Joint STARS was just off the shelf at the time of the Gulf War...and that served as part of its evaluation," said Cassity, who retired from active duty in 1991 and is now a vice president at Suss Consulting Inc., a government consulting firm. "Twelve years later, it's a premier weapons system. There's been a quantum leap there."

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