After slipping by each other the narrow aisle of an E-8C Joint STARS aircraft, more than a dozen Airmen settle into their seats and begin to flip switches and work through checklists. Their olive-green headsets block out the roar of the jet engines and replace it with busy radio chatter as the crew prepares for the mission ahead.
Computer screens in front of them come to life, as their aircraft’s radar returns a black and white image of lines, bumps and craters. Additional radar sweeps fill the screen with yellow dots. The clutters they form begin to trace the path of roads and highways.
“The dots are moving target indicators and reflect the information our radar bounces back to us,” said Airman 1st Class Cher, an airborne operations technician assigned to the 461st Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base, Ga.
Supplying the U.S. military with this elusive type of data is the heart of the Airmen’s mission at JSTARS, the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System.
The secret of Joint STARS is hidden inside the 27-foot long radome tucked underneath the belly of the aircraft that otherwise looks like a regular airliner. Inside, the AN/APY-7 side-looking radar can sweep from one side to the other, transmitting its signal across hundreds of miles.
As the signal bounces off of even slightly moving objects, the antenna picks up every movement, betraying their exact location, no matter whether night or day — making it impossible for enemies to hide.
“If it moves, we see it,” said Lt. Col. Chris Quimby, the director of plans at the 116th ACW. “But we don’t just see something and report it. We can act on it immediately.”
The mission sounds simple – detecting movement on the ground and relaying that information to other units. But it takes the trained eyes of the crew members of the active-duty 461st ACW and their Air National Guard counterparts of the 116th ACW, to connect the dots in meaningful ways, make out patterns and keep a human eye on the impartial tools of technology.
Airmen turn the radar signal into information that allows commanders to know their troop’s position relative to the enemy and early decision making of whether to engage or navigate around danger.
Joint STARS’s powerful radar allows the Airmen to survey a wide area with radar, and provide ground forces with an unparalleled look from above.
But the air battle managers aboard the E-8C are more than just remote observers. When necessary, they can act as an air control tower in the sky, de-conflicting air-travel paths and leading aircraft to ground targets across the battlefield.
“We are the one point of contact for the units on the ground,” said Major Jon, a mission crew commander with the 461st ACW. “With us in the air, nobody has to find their communication channels; they can just talk to us directly, as a one-stop shop. We’re the air to ground experts and without us, the warfighter doesn’t have the information he needs — information that will save their lives.”
The aircraft is filled with radar surveillance and communication tools, including 22 radios, six data links, and a secure telephone that connects the Airmen to ground and air commanders.
The Airmen communicate with each other and units far away in highly encrypted chat rooms. Between the flight deck, navigator, radar technicians and operators, their secret chat is a revolving door of communication throughout the aircraft and beyond.
“Even though we may look like we are all zoned into our own spots, we have a lot of communications over the internal nets on the aircraft,” Cher said. “The advantage is that it’s a more secure way of communicating. It allows you to see all the available parties and to respond when you have the time.”
This constant flow of information allows the airborne crew of 20 or more to detect, locate, classify, track and target hostile ground movement from a safe distance. They have no weapons on board and don’t need them, as JSTARS is so far away from their target that they never even see or hear the aircraft.
On missions that can last through the night, the analysts spend long hours scanning the ground and managing requests for information — all while relaying their discoveries to ground troops.
“By being up in the air for extended periods of time, we can collect historical data, and focus on a certain area for hours at a time,” said Tech. Sgt. Mike, an airborne radar technician with the 116th ACW. “It is important for us to stay up in the air for long periods of time in order to collect that type of (long-term) data and produce a pattern of life on the ground.”
After tracking movement day after day, minor variations may tip off troops to an impending attack when those patterns change or a lone vehicle suddenly stops at an unusual place – Put together with other pieces of intelligence the data can be a gold mine, revealing new enemy sites and routes.
“We look at the history that shows the dots in sequence, looking for anything moving in a certain way,” Cher said. “There are specific criteria we look for in these tracks — something moving towards a road, for example. If that happens, we’ll be able to see the dots pop up and ‘move’ to the road.”
This rapidly evolving forensics capability continues to enhance the operational value of Joint STARS’ target indicators beyond immediate use while on orbit.
“We can do a sweep of the area, collect dots for several days, so the Army knows in advance how people normally travel, what footpaths and roads they take and what times those roads are busy. So we know when some movement is suspicious,” Quimby said.
The ability to glean meaning from the dots is, however, limited by technology. Typical information often only includes speed, heading and size of a column of objects.
After years of radar refinement, a burst of radar energy can be turned into Synthetic Aperture RADAR images, delivering almost photo negative images of the ground, able to show larger structures and contours on the ground. Yet the operators still rely heavily on their training and experience to gain insight into what the dots really mean.
Once the analysts find suspicious tracks, more flexible fighter aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems are therefore cross-cued and become the “eyes” of Joint STARS. This allows the crews to “zoom in” and explore a smaller area of responsibility through thermal or optical imaging for a clear visual identification of points of interests.
For now, JSTARS remains irreplaceable and its scan area unmatched, Mike said.
“Drones are basically looking though a narrow straw,” Mike said. “They can only see and survey a very small area at a time. With our radar we can see a broader picture and cover a large area. We give a wide-area surveillance, a wide, big picture of the battle area. If there is anything moving on the ground, we can see it.”
The capabilities of Joint STARS are far-reaching and make it more than a warfighting tool. Its ability to detect the infiltration of insurgents from neighboring countries, can also be used to prevent drug traffickers from crossing borders under the cover of night, for example.
In battle, the crews can provide vital support when a service member’s life is on the line. With its 360 degree awareness of the battlefield, crash and ambush sites are quickly located, directing rescue crews to the scene while protecting troops from attack.
During Operation Anaconda, the first large-scale battle of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the flexibility of the crews could support combat search and rescue forces and manage protection of a downed helicopter crew on the ground — at the same time.
“We were on station and our mission crew commander was the first to talk to the pilots on the ground, setting up a security perimeter around the crash site,” said Mike, who was part of the crew during the mission. “The guys on the ground may not know who is coming towards them. For us it was important to provide the big picture, and to make sure that the rescue crews could take care of what they need to do. It’s kind of a security blanket, providing piece of mind, to know that Joint STARS is up there watching, making sure no bad guys are coming.”
Soldiers’ best friend
When Joint STARS is in the air, the rules on the ground change in favor of the Soldiers, the operators said.
“During a deployment with the Army, I really liked doing over watch,” Cher said. “We can exactly pinpoint where the Soldiers are and if something is approaching their location, we can immediately tell them ‘Hey there is something coming.’ That is really rewarding for me because you could potentially save people on the ground because with us in the air they know when somebody is coming.”
From inception, Joint STARS’ primary purpose was to support the Army in anticipating battlefield movements. By design, Soldiers regularly join Airmen aboard the E-8C to ensure seamless support to ground forces.
“We act as liaison between the Army personnel on the ground and the Air Force mission commander on the aircraft to ensure we are collecting the needed information,” said Sgt. 1st Class Bautiste, an analyst assigned to JSTARS. “We try to provide the intelligence requirements the ground commander has to accomplish his mission to be able to focus his troops. Just with my experience as an infantry man, I have a much better understanding of tactics, techniques and procedures, how people are moving on the ground, what they need and what they are looking for.”
This experience is equally appreciated by the mission crew commander, who likewise sees the Soldiers as a valuable resource.
“The Army gives us a sense of continuity and expertise,” said Maj. Jon. “Having Soldiers on board helps because it prevents misunderstandings and makes us more effective for the troops on the ground.”
Joint STARS continuous to evolve
Although originally designed for Cold-War operations and tactics, such as the Fulda Gap in Germany — where Allied forces prepared to counter a large-scale, tank-based invasion by forces of the Warsaw Pact — experienced Joint STARS operators have seen many changes to their missions. From the open plains of Iraq to the remote mountain ranges of Afghanistan, Joint STARS has become a growing center piece of intelligence gathering in ongoing counter-insurgency operations.
“Things change constantly. In the early months of (Operation Iraqi Freedom) it was basically ground war, with big convoys coming down the road,” Jon said. “Today, in Afghanistan, I’m not looking for convoys, I’m looking for one or two tracks. It’s the tactics and procedures developed by people on this aircraft that make us usable in almost any situation. It’s the people on the aircraft that make the mission.”
Despite its beginning as a support mission for the Army ground forces, Joint STARS crews now increasingly find themselves over water, taking on new maritime missions.
“This is not your ‘daddy’s Joint STARS,'” said Col. Dean Worley, the commander of the 461st ACW. “The national strategy has emphasized a Pacific shift and there are certain capabilities we will need to control the surface domain, the maritime as well as the air domain. And because of that we are now relearning how to be effective in the ‘Air Sea Battle’ using our ability to conduct multi-domain operations in the air and at sea, in support of that national strategy.”
Radar enhancements now allow Joint STARS to track dots over water – quickly searching large areas for boats and crafts of all sizes and allowing the Navy to increase its ability to see beyond the ships’ radar.
“We can look all around a ship and prevent anything from approaching that they can’t see,” Jon said. “While they have an on-board radar, it can only see so far. We’re in the air and we can see much further.”
The added capability may soon allow JSTARS to operate theater-wide without limitations. To those who can read the dots, anything that is moving on the ground or at sea seems an open book.
“Having C2/ISR on the same platform provides an amazing capability and no other jet can do exactly what we do,” Cher said. “And now, with maritime capabilities, we can be sent to a job and do almost anything that the warfighter needs us to.”
Busier than ever before
According to officials, the demand for Joint STARS and the information they glean from the myriad of dots, is only growing. Global demand for “dots” is five times greater than capability to deliver them — and JSTARS is the biggest producer of GMTI to date. Often Joint STARS is the first aircraft to explore a new battle area and the last to leave.
“The platform has proven so capable because it can do multiple things at the same time,” said Col. Kevin Clotfelter, the commander of the ANG 116th ACW. “And a large player in that is the aircrew personnel. It’s hard to replace the person on the aircraft, problem solving, delegating, prioritizing tasks and giving clear tasks.”
Due to its usefulness, data from Joint STARS missions is used across all combatant commands and teams have been undergoing continuous steady-state deployments since 2001. While taxing on manpower, “Team JSTARS” is going strong, Clotfelter said, strengthened by the cooperation of experienced Guardsmen who stay with the unit for long periods of time and their more mobile active-duty counterparts.
“The Guard is an equal partner. In fact, it takes both wings to fulfill a tasking,” Clotfelter said. “We are meeting (all taskings) together. And the Guard brings some continuity and predictability because (the Guardsmen) are not as susceptible to permanent change of stations as active-duty personnel.
“But at the same time, active-duty personnel bring experience and perspective from the place they left, whether that was a different airframe or a staff job somewhere,” he said. “We have the best of both worlds, because we get long-term experience, some predictability, on one hand, but also get a fresh look, and lots of energy and creativity on the other.”
While the war may be drawing down in the Middle East, JSTARS tasking are not slowing down and the crews are busy as ever.
“We’ve been seeing the widest deployment of JSTARS in history,” Clotfelter said. “We’ve seen more Guardsmen deploy at one time than ever before. That means we are more places than we’ve ever been. I’m proud to say the Guard supports this with a lot of volunteerism and willingness to go to the fight.”
A dynamic and relevant mission has kept Airmen of JSTARS engaged and rising to the challenge, Clotfelter said.
“JSTARS is busy right now and, really, we’ve been busy since 2001,” Mike said. “Our mission is important and that makes us feel good about what we do. That’s one reason why I volunteer to deploy. We have a real impact on the mission.”
To the active-duty and Air National Guard Airmen who make up JSTARS, it’s much more than simply connecting the dots and compiling data. It’s all about saving lives on the ground.