Intelligence: NATO JSTARS Shrinks Again


September 30, 2009: For the third time, the NATO AGS (Alliance Ground Surveillance) project has shrunk. Five years ago, it was going to consist of five Airbus A321 aircraft fitted out with a ground radar similar to that found in the U.S. E-8 JSTARS. In addition, there would be four American RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs, equipped with a high resolution ground radar. Two years ago, it was decided that the A321 aircraft and its special radar would be too expensive and time consuming to proceed with. It was then decided to go with eight RQ-4s. But this year, money shortages led to AGS being cut back to just four RQ-4s. AGS is supposed to be operational in three years, and this all depends on timely delivery of the RQ-4s and the AESA radar systems. AGS has been in the planning and discussion stage for over a decade.

NATO nations have agreed to contribute about a billion dollars to establish the AGS system. This will consist of four U.S. built Global Hawk UAVs, equipped with spy satellite grade surveillance equipment (cameras and radar), fifteen ground stations and software to get the data to any NATO member quickly. The late model (Block 40) Global Hawks will be able to get to any part of the globe (the U.S. has flown them across the Pacific, on automatic) quickly, and put eyes on the trouble spot.

The U.S. JSTARS gave NATO the idea that this kind of investment would be useful. What really convinced them was the experience with JSTARS in Iraq. It was four years ago that JSTARS radar aircraft were first used to track down terrorist bombers in Iraq. This was done by using the JSTARS radar to track where the attackers go after an attack. Many of the attacks take place in sparely populated places, and at night. JSTARS could 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 track a smaller area. 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). In this manner, operators could track movement of ground units over a wide area. Operators could 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. There has always been at least one JSTARS operating in Iraq.

 Eventually, JSTARS was being used to detect potential attacks. The post mission analysis of the collected data during an IED attack provided information about the scheme of maneuver before the attack was launched. These collected movement patterns are used to predict such attacks and therefore protect U.S. troops against their effects. In addition, the persistent wide area coverage enabled U.S. troops to track down the infrastructure behind those attacks. This information helped to destroy the insurgent networks behind the IED attacks.

The AGS radar will have higher resolution (one foot, versus 12 feet for JSTARS) and thus able to track even more detail on the ground. This would be very useful in peacekeeping, as well as combat, situations.


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