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 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.
Flying thousands of feet in the sky and zooming sensors in on enemy movement below, the Air Force manned Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System has been using advanced technology to gather and share combat-relevant information, circle above military operations and share key Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance data with service command and control.
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.
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The JSTARS mission is of such significance that the Air Force is now evaluating multiple industry proposals to recapitalize the mission with a new, high-tech, next-generation JSTARS plane to serve for decades into the future.
However, while Air Force officials tell Warrior the service plans to continue its pursuit of a new JSTARS platform, service weapons developers now say the Air Force is contemplating the prospect of developing different systems, platforms or technologies better equipped to perform the JSTARS mission in high-threat environments.
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The circumstance has left many to wonder about just what kind of path forward the Air Force will ultimately pursue when it comes to its longer-term aerial battlefield surveillance mission.
"The Air Force remains in source selection for a follow-on to JSTARS as we continue to evaluate alternative approaches for battlefield command and control that could be more effective in high-threat environments. In the meantime, we plan to continue flying the current JSTARS fleet through fiscal year 2023," Capt. Emily Grabowski, Air Force spokeswoman, told Scout Warrior. "Although we are exploring options, there are many steps still to be taken before any force structure proposals are included in the 2019 budget."
In the meantime, as Grabowski indicated, the Air Force is aggressively advancing efforts to ensure that the existing JSTARS fleet of 16 aircraft remain current, upgraded and able to function in high-threat combat circumstances.
"Over the last 30 years, we have incorporated about 27 different capabilities. Ultimately, the fleet has flown over 130K combat hours since 9/11. It is an in-demand platform and we will make sure it stays in demand," Bryan Lima, director of manned C2 ISR business, JSTARS, told Warrior in an interview.
Lima expounded upon this to specify a handful of communications and sensor upgrades along with ISR technologies engineered to address lower, slower moving targets, described as LSS. Newer methods of data exploitation, Lima articulated, enable operators to better understand and classify what they are looking at.
"We believe we can address many emerging threats with the current fleet," Lima 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 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.
In an interview with Scout Warrior earlier this year, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, Acquisition, said the service has upgraded some of its existing fleet of J-STARS but still needs to develop new technology for the future.
While Air Force officials did not elaborate much on the various future threat conditions currently informing the calculus of decision-making, there has been much discussion of a broader need for air surveillance assets to operate in a more contested, high-threat, near-peer type warfare environment. Given these dynamics, broadly speaking, it makes sense that a larger, and therefore more detectable platform like JSTARS could be a more vulnerable target against adversaries with sophisticated weapons and sensors. Accordingly, 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.