Monday, November 23, 2009

JSTARS Now Tracking Taliban in Afghan Mountains

New Mission, New Techniques


Airplanes that were designed in the 1980s to spot Soviet tanks rumbling through central Germany, and used in Iraq to track forces moving under the cover of a sandstorm, now are being used in Afghanistan to spot Taliban fighters trudging on foot at night along rough mountain trails.

The planes are E-8C JSTARS - Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft.

"We're looking at some new applications for the radar," confirmed Col. William Welsh, operations group commander at the 116th Air Control Wing, which operates the U.S. Air Force's 17 JSTARS planes and is based at Robins Air Force Base, Ga. "We're trying to determine exactly what its capabilities are."

In Iraq, and especially in Afghanistan, the planes have proven useful in spotting and tracking "dismounted forces" - groups of Taliban and other fighters moving on foot.

The Air Force declines to say just how sensitive JSTARS radar is or whether it operates at its customary 35,000 feet. But Welsh put it this way: "It does not necessarily have to be a large group."

According to information published by the Air Force, JSTARS crews flying over Afghanistan "are often looking for a single ground mover in an area of interest."

The planes are equipped with giant Doppler radars, which detect motion by aiming a radar signal to the ground and analyzing changes in the frequency of the signal that bounces back.

"Everything in motion creates a Doppler shift, and the radar is set to detect it," Welsh said.

In the past, JSTARS radars have been set to detect large, relatively fast-moving objects, such as tanks and armored vehicles. They also had limited ability to detect helicopters and slow, low-flying aircraft.

"The big change, the new application, is looking at potentially smaller and slower targets," Welsh said. Of particular interest: Taliban fighters. "We're still going through the learning process and developing tactics, techniques and procedures," he said.

The Air Force is adjusting JSTARS operating methods to match reality on the ground in Afghanistan, said Michael Isherwood, a senior analyst for Northrop Grumman and a former Air Force fighter pilot.

"There is a real lack of infrastructure," he said. "There are no railroads, no interstate [highways]. There is a culture of moving from place to place on foot, on horse, over trails, literally climbing up a mountain and down the other side. That's how they get around."

And that's what JSTARS now must be able to detect.

The plane itself is big - a 153-foot-long modified Boeing 707 airliner. It has a 24-foot-long radar antenna that is housed in a 27-foot-long canoe-shaped radome attached to its belly.

Inside, JSTARS is packed with computers that analyze radar signals and with communications gear. It has 18 work stations that are typically manned by a mix of Air Force and Army radar and communications specialists.

The way it is traditionally used, the JSTARS radar can look down over 19,305 square miles and detect moving targets as far away as 155 miles.

But in Afghanistan, instead of maintaining that sweeping view, the radar is being focused on up to 14 separate target areas that are each 10 kilometers square.

In this configuration, a JSTARS plane can simultaneously watch the area around several U.S. outposts to warn of approaching enemies, monitor convoys, support combat operations and conduct surveillance along key roads and borders, according to Northrop Grumman, which installed and maintains the equipment that turns a 707 into a JSTARS.

To make the JSTARS radar spot fighters on foot rather than tanks on the move, "you adjust the parameters," Isherwood said, "adjust the sensitivity."

Welsh makes it sound not quite so simple. "The bottom line for us is that we're still evaluating what our capabilities are when we start looking at low radar cross-section targets," he said.

How small can it be and how slow can it go? The Air Force doesn't yet know, he said. And "it will be classified when we do."

With its radars, JSTARS can see through clouds, smoke and dust, and it is effective during the day, at night and in foul weather, Northrop said.

Welsh won't say when it is being flown in Afghanistan. "Our flying schedule is classified," he said. But reports from Afghanistan suggest that much of the JSTARS work there is done at night.


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