Joint STARS: Ready for action

The Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) was an experimental program tested and evaluated in the skies over the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

Joint STARS passed those tests, and many since, and has evolved from surveillance-only aircraft into one of the Air Force's premier battle management and command and control systems, said Maj. John Grivakis, Joint STARS functional manager at Air Combat Command, Langley Air Force Base, Va.

A joint Army/Air Force program, Joint STARS is an aircraft-based system that uses sophisticated radar sensors to track slow-moving vehicles. While flying in friendly airspace, Joint STARS crew members can detect and track ground movements deep in hostile territory, collecting valuable data for planning attacks and assessing their success.

The system, carried on Air Force E-8C aircraft, uses a high-powered computer server to process and analyze data, then relays the information to Army ground stations and other command and control systems. It has a range of more than 150 miles, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

Joint STARS provides "wide-area surveillance," Grivakis confirmed, but the exact range is classified.

Retired Army Capt. John Hillen led a reconnaissance unit involved in an offensive against the Iraqi Republican Guard in the Gulf War and said that his team relied heavily on the moving-target intelligence that 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 forces, "we could see what was behind the next wave and how they were moving," which saved lives, time and money.

The Air Force is still developing solutions that will enable those relying on Joint STARS to differentiate friendly and enemy forces, Grivakis said. "The technology has still not evolved yet...and we need funding and a schedule to put it on board. It's the biggest challenge and would really be helpful."

Joint STARS has grown from the two aircraft used during Desert Storm to a fleet of 14 — soon to be 15 — aircraft, 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.

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