by Tech. Sgt. Ray Johnson
Air Force Combat Information Team
RHEIN-MAIN AIR BASE, Germany (AFNS) -- Since the days of Roman foot soldiers, military leaders have fought to hold strategic high ground. The Air Force is taking that ancient concept to new heights with a joint surveillance unit supporting Operation Joint Endeavor.
The 4500th Joint STARS Squadron (Provisional) deployed Dec. 15 to Rhein-Main with two E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft. The unit -- a composite force of Air Force, Army and civilian members -- will provide real-time surveillance information and critical information to NATO-led implementation forces charged with keeping peace in Bosnia, a splintered country spent by four years of civil war.
A long-range, air-to-ground surveillance and battle management system, Joint STARS is comprised of a modified Boeing 707 -- complete with a radar antenna housed under its fuselage -- and a ground station module. Flying in race-track orbits, it melds airborne electronic surveillance with downlinks to both air and ground forces.
"It's a system of subsystems," said Col. Robert DeBusk, 4500th JSS commander.
Joint STARS, noted for its Desert Storm success, looks deep into hostile areas to detect and track military targets such as trucks and tanks. The refuelable gray-colored aircraft carries a crew of 20-40, depending on mission length, and 18 tightly squeezed data-gathering consoles. This is where the "Eyes of the Night," as the squadron calls itself, starts its mission.
The aircraft's heart is a radar antenna that operates in three modes: wide-area surveillance; sector search and synthetic-aperture radar. Wide-area surveillance and sector search capabilities identify moving targets while the later recognizes fixed targets.
Wide-area surveillance -- the radar's basic operating mode -- finds slow-moving targets. Operators, working at high-tech control consoles, use the aircraft's moving-target indicators to find small targets, such as jeeps or patrol boats, hundreds of kilometers away.
The radar, which can "see" on either side of the plane, normally tracks 80-250 kilometer areas at a time, but can hone in on area as small as four kilometers -- this from an attitude of 40,000 feet. "We normally cover what a corps ground commander is responsible for or is concerned about," said Capt. Tara Krautkramer. "This provides a big picture, allowing him to see the lines of communication and flow of general traffic."
The system can also provide a smaller, more detailed picture, said Capt. Keith Jones, watching the ground -- thousands of feet below him -- roll along his console screen.
After identifying targets by wide-area surveillance, the captain enlarged a specific target within a small white box. Jones, a sensor management officer, punched a key to stretch the box as the overall map shrank. "The territory inside the box is being updated more quickly by the radar than area around it," he said.
As the captain zoomed in, individual vehicles became clearer. Bringing the screen up even more, Jones pointed out a moving train and easily determined its direction.
Closer to the plane's cockpit, Tech. Sgt. Bone Sheehan used a synthetic-aperture console to produce detailed photograph-like images of ground terrain, military sites and fixed targets. These images provide attack pilots and intelligence experts with extremely accurate renditions of specific targets -- even in the worst of weather. Joint STARS -- able to see through clouds -- records images based on metallic reflection and radar returns, providing detailed ground images, Sheehan said.
Pointing to a green screen with tiny blinking yellow dots, he said Joint STARS is the world's only aircraft that can perform both synthetic-aperture and moving-target radar functions simultaneously. An example is fixed bridge images overlaid with real-time traffic flowing over it. Sheehan would apply such capabilities if tasked to provide battle-damage assessment during his 60-day deployment.
The data collected by airborne crews is downlinked to mobile ground station modules -- operated by Army members -- which provide the main link between the aircraft and the ground forces it serves. The initial-receiving ground module will rebroadcast to other ground stations within the theater, said DeBusk, the 4500th JSS commander.
The small green-colored ground modules contain virtually the same consoles and information found on the E-8, said Army Sgt. David Fife. "I am essentially an extension of the aircraft," he said.
This is the second coalition contingency Joint STARS has participated in. Desert Storm was the first. During the Persian Gulf conflict, two E-8 aircraft flew 49 combat missions while undergoing initial developmental testing. Even with that success, many believe the aircraft is even better now.
"It's taken a quantum leap since then," said Maj. Terry Buquet, a flight test engineer. "In the last three or four years, this system has matured and developed and become very stable."
Nearing its final developmental stage, Joint STARS air and ground crews will continue gathering data during operational mission in Bosnia. The first production models are scheduled for a February delivery.