The Air Force is massively speeding up a new networked surveillance system intended to collect, organize and disseminate pressing attack information in extremely high-risk environments including enemy stealth fighters, advanced air defenses and armed drones.
The new aerial surveillance system -- or spy network -- is called Advanced Battle Management and Surveillance (ABMS), an emerging technical system designed to succeed the existing Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS)
“We do not want to recap JSTARS but create that same capability that protects soldiers and marines on the move. We want to replicate the technology, yet make it survivable,” William Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Acquisition, Technology & Logistics, told an audience recently at an Air Force Association Symposium.
The plan is to engineer a series of interconnected surveillance nodes, to possibly include drones, aircraft, satellites and other assets to detect enemy ground movements, provide targeting intelligence to nearby aircraft and help pinpoint fast-emerging new war information. The technology plan was first released in the Air Force 2019 budget.
This next-generation airborne surveillance and command and control technology is intended to successfully synchronize air, ground, drone and satellite assets onto a single seamless network, service officials said.
“Through networking, we want this to work as one system,” Roper added.
ABMS had been slated to reach full maturity in the 2040s; now, progress with software, technical advances and early prototyping is massively moving up the timeframe for this, Roper said.
The emerging plan represents the manifestation of lengthy Air Force considerations about whether the large and “not-so-stealthy” manned JSTARS platform would remain functionally useful in a high-threat, high-tech modern threat environment.
ABMS seeks to harvest the latest ISR-oriented technologies from current and emerging systems as a way to take a very large step forward – and connect satellites, drones, ground sensors and manned surveillance aircraft seamlessly in real time across a fast-changing, dispersed combat area of operations. ABMS is described by Air Force officials as more of a “system” than platform-specific application. This technical approach is of great significance amid anticipated future threat scenarios wherein electronic attacks, cyber intrusions and GPS "jamming" weapons are both emerging and proliferating. A collection of interconnected nodes enables surveillance to continue in the event that one is destroyed or rendered inoperable in war.
Over the longer term, the advanced ABMS suite of sensors and ISR technologies could integrate onto a number of current and future air platforms, Air Force officials told Warrior Maven.
Alongside this longer term ABMS effort, the service is also identifying a near-term “bridge” or “interim” solution to meet combat commands while ABMS develops.
Air Force Plan Adjusts to Advanced Threats
While JSTARS functions with great effect in lower threat combat circumstances, such as Afghanistan, where the US maintains air supremacy, its size, configuration and radar signature are such that it could potentially be more vulnerable to advanced enemy air defenses. Clearly, the aircraft is not intended to fly at the edge of combat, unprotected, against enemy fighter jets and air defenses - the question is what kinds of assets, emerging systems or supplemental technologies might be leveraged to expand its mission functionality in more contested areas?
An ability to address a high-threat electromagnetic warfare environment, by any estimation, is a likely focal point regarding how best to equip large sensor platforms - - for future combat environments. Aircraft with EW countermeasures or systems designed to minimize an electronic "signature" is likely figuring prominently when it comes operating in high-threat warfare scenarios.
There may be emerging assets able to perform these missions more effectively against extremely advanced enemies; newer EW and sensor technology, for instance, are rapidly evolving such that smaller, better protected platforms might have occasion to track wider areas at increasingly longer ranges - all while maintaining a lower radar signature. Faster computer processing speeds, enabling a smaller hardware footprint - coupled with more "hardened" networks and data links - might enable smaller, new platforms to gather, organize, analyze and disseminate crucial, combat-relevant information in near real-time.
Would emerging drone surveillance technology, historically thought of as providing a "soda-straw" view of areas below, be able to survey wide-swaths of dispersed terrain across a combat area of operations? Perhaps stealthy platforms, increasingly equipped with advanced sensor technology, could perform some of the wide-area command and control missions currently taken up by the JSTARS. It may be that a new JSTARS platform could operate in tandem with other systems, networks and aerial platforms able to assist the mission in higher-risk environments. In fact, this kind of cross-domain connectivity seems to be at the heart of what ABMS seeks to accomplish.
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.
The JSTARS Mission
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.
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 (U.S. Southern Command) 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.
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.
The current 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.
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 officials explain.
Ground Moving Target Indicator, GMTI, is another essential element of JSTARS technology which can identify enemy movements below.
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.
Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.