Joint STARS Does Its Stuff

June 1, 1991

One of the more unlikely heroes of Operation Desert Storm was a powerful radar system that flew in an ex-civilian aircraft, arrived in Saudi Arabia only hours before the start of the war, and faces six more years of development and tests before it reaches its “official” deployment date.

It is the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS), designed to detect and target Soviet armor columns in Europe. The Air Force sent this special sensor to the Persian Gulf at the request of Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Commander in Chief of US Central Command.

Every night throughout the Gulf conflict, one of the Air Force’s two development E-8A Joint STARS planes flew a ten- to twelve-hour orbit. Its systems beamed back real-time data on everything from the movement of mobile Scud missile launchers to the location of concertina- wire barriers and traffic on previously undetected military roads.

The Air Force’s tactical fighter units grew increasingly eager to acquire Joint STARS target information. CENTCOM headquarters came to view the F-15E tighter, with its deep-strike, nighttime capability, as an especially effective stablemate.

The Air Force, to hear US military men tell it, has fought its last war without bringing with it a Joint STARS-type aircraft. Lt. Gen. Gordon Fornell, commander of Air Force Systems Command’s Electronic Systems Division (ESD) at Hanscom AFB, Mass., notes that Joint STARS gave commanders something they have never had before, what he calls “this real-time, gods-eye view of the battle.”

In one of the more startling of Joint STARS’s Desert Storm exploits, specially equipped radar aircraft detected an Iraqi convoy carrying free rocket over ground (FROG), surface-to-surface missiles fitted with chemical munitions, according to General Fornell. US officers immediately targeted the convoy; it was destroyed by cluster bombs dropped from F-16s.

US officials say that, during the battle for the Saudi border town of Khafji early in the war, Joint STARS crew members informed allied forces that no Iraqi units were coming to support their comrades who had entered the town. Armed with this information, allied commanders launched an immediate and highly effective counterattack.

At one point, a Joint STARS airplane on a surveillance mission aided in recovering a downed F-16 pilot. It reported that there was no enemy activity in the area and that the way was clear for a rescue. Joint STARS also helped Army artillerymen target enemy positions. A US VII Corps Multiple Launch Rocket System battery used real-time Joint STARS radar information to target and destroy an emplacement of Iraqi radar-guided, SA-8 surface-to-air missiles.

Joint STARS flights spotted targets throughout the Kuwaiti theater of operations. Operators learned to differentiate between Scud launchers, air defense sites, tank columns, and other Iraqi units by the way they were arrayed on the ground.

“Every place they went, Joint STARS saw them,” says Col. Mendel Solomon, Army Joint STARS program manager and deputy director of the USAF-Army Joint STARS effort.

Tying Weapons Together

The aircraft that provided this battlefield vision is the product of a joint USAF-Army program to provide an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) of the ground war, a surveillance and battle management aircraft that looks deep behind enemy lines and provides US commanders with instantaneous information about the forces arrayed against them.

From its beginning, the Joint STARS concept fit naturally into the developing US AirLand Battle Doctrine of fighting fast and fluidly, from the front lines to the enemy’s rear echelons. Joint STARS promised to help tie together a new generation of weapons, from the Air Force’s F-117A Stealth fighter to the Army’s Tactical Missile System (ATACMS).

Grumman, the Joint STARS prime contractor, serves as system integrator. It produced two prototypes under a $657 million full-scale development contract awarded in 1985 and is working on system enhancements. A third plane will be produced under a $523 million contract awarded last fall.

The Joint STARS platform is the Boeing 707, which was bought used, modified to military specifications, and dubbed the E-8A. Using old planes saves money on an admittedly expensive program, and Air Force officials maintain that the 707s are workhorses, engineered to be tougher than today’s airliners, and are thus fully capable of withstanding the stresses of Joint STARS service.

The radar technology at the heart of Joint STARS was developed under a 1970s USAF-DARPA program called “Pave Mover.” Housed in a twenty-six-foot-long canoe underneath the E-8A’s forward fuselage, the Joint STARS radar can operate in several modes.

Its basic mode is wide-area surveillance, designed to find and identify- slow-moving targets, such as convoys. Powerful signal processors, used with the Doppler radar mode, promise to sort signals, distinguishing wheeled vehicles from higher-value tracked armor.

Fixed targets are identified in a high-resolution synthetic aperture mode, which produces a map of ground regions. Bridges, airports, and buildings show up as if in reconnaissance photographs [see p. 41].

A secure and high-capacity data link beams this radar information to Ground Station Modules (GSMs). These truck-borne receiving stations can process their own raw radar data and are intended to serve as Joint STARS’s direct link to the command and control structure.

Impressive “Deep Strike”

Though Joint STARS is not scheduled to be up and running in the operational Air Force until 1997, an exercise in Europe last fall, Operation Deep Strike, proved to be the turning point that led to the system’s deployment in Saudi Arabia.

Deep Strike simulated a large “Soviet” ground force attack against NATO forces. At one crucial point, Lt. Gen. Frederick Franks, the Army VII Corps commander, used Joint STARS data to identify and counterattack an on-rushing “Soviet” armor column, played by a Canadian tank convoy. The engagement resulted in some fifty-one tank “kills.”

General Franks became a convert and later raved about the Joint STARS capability to General Schwarzkopf. Gen. John Galvin, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, also expressed his admiration. Early last December, a Joint STARS team traveled to Riyadh to brief General Schwarzkopf’s staff, and on December 18 the order came to prepare the two prototype E-8As for Desert Shield service.

The order came none too soon. Grumman was one day away from shutting down its Joint STARS operation in Melbourne, Fla., for a two-week Christmas break. The company mounted a three-week effort to get the two prototype Joint STARS E-8As ready for desert deployment . The first priority was to get the hardware and software in both aircraft back into identical configurations. With Joint STARS in the middle of full-scale development testing, Grumman’s technicians working on the program leapfrogged the airplanes, flying one while pulling the other’s equipment for upgrades, then vice versa.

The second priority was to find the proper people. “There was no pool of ready operating personnel,” Colonel Solomon says. Two cockpit crews had been formed as part of the flight test program. To augment the contractor employees who would be deployed with the airplanes, thirty Army and forty Air Force operators had to be trained quickly in the operation of E-8 communications and radar consoles. In some cases, privates training as technicians were taken out of basic training for the Joint STARS program, according to Colonel Solomon.

Planned technical enhancements were hurriedly installed. Long-range data communications were improved, as was the synthetic aperture radar. A simple electronic warfare self-defense suite, very much of the “quick-fix” variety, was added. In fewer than ten days, Joint Tactical Information Distribution System (JTIDS) linkups were installed and tested so that the Joint STARS airplanes could receive the air picture from US E-3 AWACS planes. This was done even though JTIDS wasn’t scheduled to begin flight tests in the system until 1992.

The New Concept Emerges

Even the Joint STARS concept of operations was altered. Plans had called for a radar management officer to be an on-board conductor, parceling out ground requests for various types of radar pictures to console operators. But program managers anticipated that, against Iraq, Joint STARS would find itself taking a much more active role in directing airpower against targets.

The E-8A interior configuration was changed to make room for an air command element (ACE). Most ACE officers were senior Air Force colonels well versed in tactical air combat operations. All came from Stateside units, some of which had deployed to Saudi Arabia.

ACE officers “were integrated into our training program in Melbourne,” says Col. Harry Heimple, Joint STARS program director. “It was important that they understood the capabilities of the system, the time lines of the radar, and so forth.”

Finally, Tactical Air Command had to create a new unit, the 4411th Joint STARS Squadron. On January 11, the squadron’s two aircraft departed Grumman’s Florida facility for the Middle East, just days before Desert Shield was to be transformed into Desert Storm.

The first Joint STARS mission over Saudi Arabia took place on January 14. It was flown at night, as were all the aircraft’s subsequent missions. Program managers made it clear before they went to the Middle East that they didn’t have enough planes or manpower to provide round-the-clock coverage.

From the start, Joint STARS fit in well with the high-volume airpower plan presided over by Central Command air chief Lt. Gen. Charles A. Horner. It took a few sorties for everyone to figure out just how much data the E-8As produced. “The more the air component and ground component commanders became familiar with our products, the more effectively they tasked and used us,” says Colonel Heimple.

Usually the Joint STARS plane received an assigned mission orbit from the massive Air Tasking Order that was produced by Central Command and revised every night, says Colonel Heimple. Often it flew in the same general behind-the-lines area as AWACS aircraft.

The Joint STARS aircraft took off from its central Saudi Arabian base with orders to begin its night by looking at a large specific area of the Kuwaiti theater of operations, using its radar in wide-area surveillance mode, to track Iraqi moving targets. The crew carried a list of TAC targeting priorities that they executed during the mission, looking intensely at smaller areas with both the moving-target mode and the stationary-target synthetic aperture radar mode.

The Cue for Specific Targets

This preset part of the mission was only its framework. Throughout the night, crews used information from other intelligence sources to cue Joint STARS for specific target information. “Certainly, the system was often real-time-requested,” Colonel Heimple says.

The main receivers of Joint STARS radar data were the six truck-mounted GSMs sent along with the 4411th Joint STARS Squadron. Central Command Air Force headquarters in Riyadh had one, as did Marine Headquarters. Central Command Army had two–one for the rear echelon and one to send forward. US VII Corps had its own GSM, as did the Army’s 18th Airborne Corps.

Joint STARS crews communicated directly with airborne tactical command centers and individual fighter aircraft via secure voice links. TAC leaders want future fighters to be able to see the Joint STARS radar picture via JTIDS, but procurement of JTIDS for insertion into fighters has been a casualty of budget wars of recent years.

The Joint STARS final total of fifty-four missions added up to more than 600 hours of flight time. One of the E-8As was in the air every night of the war.

Says Colonel Heimple, “To take a system that has six years to go until IOC [initial operational capability], throw it into a war with no parts pro-visioning, no spares pipeline, and have it meet 100 percent mission tasking is pretty amazing.”

Fortuitous development decisions helped. Much prototype hardware had already been built with the extra-robust connectors and other details required by military specifications.

The Air Force could not have kept Joint STARS planes flying without using contractor personnel. Four out of eighteen crew members aboard every Joint STARS flight were Grumman employees. Though all radar and communications consoles were manned by Army or Air Force officers, the contractors were the Ph.Ds. who got the system up and kept it up, according to Air Force officers. GSM contractor Motorola sent one maintenance technician along with each GSM, no matter where it went. “They did indeed get themselves into harm’s way,” says the Army’s Colonel Solomon.

The performance of Joint STARS in its trial by combat gives the program a needed boost on the way to deployment, in the view of the Air Force. Congress has worried about cost overruns and schedule slippages in the program. With the easing of the Soviet threat in Europe, Joint STARS seemed to some critics to have lost its reason for existence. Why, they asked, should the Air Force buy a system designed to detect rear-echelon armor columns when conventional arms-control measures would eliminate most of those columns anyway

“The Magic Number”

Before Desert Storm, few observers felt the Air Force would get its full complement of twenty production Joint STARS aircraft. The betting in Washington now is that the number is assured. Adding in the three prototype aircraft, “the magic number around here is twenty-three,” one Air Force official says.

Army plans currently call for production of around seventy-five GSMs. A typical deployment would be about fifteen GSMs per Army corps, says Colonel Solomon.

Given the success of the system in Operation Desert Storm, allocation of seats on the plane may become a contentious issue. Most console operators will be Air Force officers. Right now, the Army gets three consoles. The Marines and even the Navy may now want to be on board, however.

The existing E-8A prototypes have ten operations consoles and two communications stations. The E-8B production version will have eighteen consoles, any two of which can be used for communications, and will have space to carry two entire mission crews. “Everybody will want a seat,” says Colonel Solomon.

One of the lessons program managers learned from the deployment during Desert Storm was the value of Joint STARS in locating stationary targets. Though designed originally to handle the task of tracking “movers” such as tank columns, Joint STARS’s synthetic aperture radar mode turned out a lot of valuable information about infrastructure in a theater of operations less thoroughly mapped than central Europe.

Ironically, even the wide-area surveillance/moving-target indicator mode helped in this regard. Concertina wire blowing in the wind turned up on the WAS/MT1 picture. Convoys moving repeatedly over the same areas of desert revealed unmapped roads, built in Kuwait by Iraqi military engineers.

Combat experience pointed out some flaws in management of Joint STARS communications. Before Desert Storm, much effort was expended on the development of radar and data links. Operational missions found Joint STARS at full communications capacity-an area that had received less attention. With a system designed to handle sixteen radios operating simultaneously, there were inevitable delays in frequency management.

“We hadn’t put a lot of stress on the system with lots of operators doing different things,” says Colonel Heimple.

Some minor problems with man-machine interfaces also surfaced. Operators pointed out areas where they would like different tagging methods on-screen and different uses of color.

No Need to Hurry

There is still plenty of time to deal with these issues before Joint STARS deployment. Program managers say that Desert Storm will not cut any time off the march toward their major .milestones. The decision on advance purchase of long-lead items is set for January 1992. A decision on whether to proceed into low-rate production is currently scheduled for January 1993. Full operational capability is not expected until 1997.

Colonel Heimple estimates that twenty-five percent of the program’s total development work still needs to be done. Software has not been written for such features as built-in tests. A full-capability self-defense suite will begin flying on the third prototype plane in 1994. Repair manuals have to be written and production drawings made. Mission and flight simulators have yet to be finished, and a maintenance trainer and an integrated software support facility must be completed.

The man in the street may not understand why a system that performs well in real combat still needs six years before it is officially deployed. Colonel Heimple replies that it takes time to move from a plane that needs to carry contractors on board for repairs to one entirely under the control of uniformed personnel.

“Once you’ve mastered the miracle of the technology, it’s critical to complete the process of engineering and development documentation to create a maintainable, reliable system that will produce these results over the long term,” says Colonel Heimple.

For the future–beyond IOC–the US might upgrade the E-8 by adding a weapons data link so Joint STARS could provide targeting information to unmanned, precision guided weapons. This capability was part of the original USAF-Army requirements package. It was deleted to save money.

The Joint STARS radar sensor was actually built with a weapons link in mind. What is needed now is development of an interface unit that would enable cruise missiles or ATACMS to plug into the system.

As a nonintrusive monitor of ground activity, Joint STARS could have a future in treaty verification, drug interdiction, and peacekeeping missions by the UN and other international organizations, say defense officials. It could eventually be the precursor of a much more capable system. AFSC is examining the possibility of combining AWACS and Joint STARS characteristics in one radar aircraft.

AFSC Commander Gen. Ronald Yates told an Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association luncheon audience in February that the Air Force’s goal “is to have a 1,000 percent improvement in our ability to detect air and ground targets over wide areas.”

Peter Grief is the Washington defense correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and a regular contributor to AIR FORCE Magazine. His most recent article, “The New and Improved But Not Yet Perfect Procurement Process,” appeared in the April 1991 issue.