The U.S. Air Force has equipped its first E-8 JSTARS ground radar
aircraft with new JT8D-219 engines (21,000 pounds of thrust). These replace
JT3Ds (19,000 pounds of thrust). The new engines are not only 10 percent more
powerful, but more reliable and easier to maintain. There are also upgrades
inside the aircraft, replacing a lot of 1980s era electronics with modern gear.
All this is
so the E-8 can serve for another 60 years. That would see some of these
aircraft retiring after 70 years of service. Since the E8 is based on the
Boeing 707 airliner (a 1950s design), this would result in that aircraft type still
being in the air more than a century after it first entered service.
designed at the end of the Cold War to track NATO and Soviet armed forces in
the dreaded (but ultimately avoided) World War III, JSTARS first saw action
during the 1991 Gulf War, and proved very useful. For the last five years,
JSTARS has proved remarkably effective in Iraq. For example, in the last year,
E-8s have flown about 20,000 hours over Iraq. That means that, two-thirds of
the time over Iraq, a JSTARS aircraft has been in the air. One or two JSTARS
have been stationed in the region since 2003. No one will say, officially,
exactly what the JSTARS is doing, but whatever it is, it's been doing a lot of
it for a long time. From 2003-6, E8s averaged about a hundred hours a week over
proved to be remarkably flexible. It is known that the E-8 radar has been used
to track where the terrorists go after an attack on American troops. Many of
the attacks take place in sparely populated places, and at night. JSTARS can
track vehicles on the ground over a wide area. For example, a single JSTARS can
cover all of central Iraq, although its ground radar can only zoom in on a
smaller area for useful information. The JSTARS radar has two modes; wide area
(showing a 25 by 20 kilometer area) and detailed (4,000 by 5,000 meters). The
radar can see out to several hundred kilometers and each screen full of
information could be saved and brought back later to compare to another view
(to see what has moved).
can track movement of ground units, or individual vehicles, over a wide area.
Operators can also use the detail mode to pick out specific details of what's
going on down there, like tracking the movement of vehicles fleeing the scene
of an ambush. JSTARS is real good at picking up trucks moving along highways on
flat terrain. JSTARS can stay up there for over 12 hours at a time, and two or
more JSTARS can operate in shifts to provide 24/7 coverage.
JSTARS have been used to monitor the Syrian and Iranian borders for smugglers.
Some stuff comes across the borders in trucks, but much still arrives on the
back of animals, which JSTARS cannot track. But tracking the movement of
vehicles in western Iraq, in the middle of night, has proved useful. When the JSTARS
crew (of 18 equipment and surveillance specialists) spots something, they can
alert combat troops on the ground to take a closer look.
also send its data to computer terminals on the ground, in army brigade or
division headquarters. JSTARS is also being fitted with a higher performance
radar. The new equipment can spot smaller targets, although the air force won't
say if this includes horses or camels, loaded with weapons, crossing the Syrian
or Iranian border. The E-8s have been in
Afghanistan since 2002, and more of these aircraft are headed there, as
operations in Iraq wind down.
force has 17 JSTARs, each costing about $366 million. The crews consist of
active duty and reserve personnel. If the E-8s do stay in service another 60
years, they will get new engines, refurbished airframes, new electronics and
possibly so much automation that they will eventually fly without crews, having
been turned into UAVs.