Air Force Plan for Radar Planes Is Missing In Action
(Source: The Lexington Institute; issued Aug. 7, 2007)

(© The Lexington Institute; reproduced by permission)
The US Air Force risks losing its most significant ground targeting capability unless it upgrades its fleet of E-8 Joint-STARS aircraft, such as this one preparing to take-off in Iraq. (US Air Force photo)
If there is one lesson U.S. defense planners should have learned from the frustrating campaign to take down Al Qaeda since 9-11, it is the need for better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The military groups all such awareness-enhancing activities under the rubric of "ISR," and it tells a fairly convincing story about the steps that have been taken to improve capabilities. But when it comes time to allocate budget dollars, you have to wonder whether even now senior officials have gotten the message that without the ability to track stealthy, unconventional targets, we may never defeat global terrorism.

Take the case of the Air Force's E-8 Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, usually referred to as Joint Stars or JSTARS. JSTARS is an airborne radar conceived 25 years ago by the Air Force and the Army to track enemy ground vehicles such as tanks in any weather, day or night. The radar is carried on the belly of a Boeing 707 that also hosts powerful computers and work stations for processing signals and transmitting the targeting information to strike units. It works amazingly well, as in the case where Air Force fighters using satellite-guided bombs were able to destroy Iraqi armored units in the midst of a raging sandstorm without harming nearby civilians.

It doesn't matter how accurate your smart bombs are if you can't find the target, and that's what JSTARS does. It detects moving ground and air targets, establishes precise tracks, and then hands off the information to pilots in attack aircraft or friendly ground units. Its versatile radar can follow hundreds of targets simultaneously, isolating and imaging the most time-sensitive ones for quick action. Nothing like it has ever existed before, and it has contributed to a true revolution in warfare.

But as everyone knows, this is an era of diverse and changing threats, so a quarter-century after it was first conceived there is a need to upgrade the capabilities of JSTARS. Among the targets planners would like to be able to track more effectively are low-flying cruise missiles (dozens of nations have them) and fleeting ground targets such as the Toyotas that terrorists seem to favor. The formal military requirement for a more sensitive radar capable of doing those things was approved in the 1990s, and the military has since then spent over $800 million getting the radar ready for operational deployment.

So where is the plan for fielding the radar? Well, it appears the Air Force doesn't really have one.

It had intended to put it on a multi-role radar plane designated the E-10 that would replace both JSTARS and the AWACS aerial surveillance system, but that idea was killed in the 2006 quadrennial defense review. It still plans to put a scaled-down version of the new radar technology on the unmanned Global Hawk, but the dimensions of that aircraft are too small to accomplish all the missions the radar was designed for. The only logical recipient of the full-up radar is the existing fleet of 17 JSTARS planes.

That relatively low-cost option was what planners originally had in mind when they developed the requirement for the radar upgrade in the 1990s. Aside from needing new engines, the current fleet is in good shape and could probably continue operating for another 30 years -- as long as its on-board systems are good enough to track emerging threats.

But the Air Force hasn't committed the money to keep the radar and other on-board systems current. So as of today, the Air Force plans to buy thousands of fighters and hundreds of tankers over the next few decades, but it hasn't explained how it intends to upgrade its modest fleet of radar planes to enable all those other planes to find the enemy.


by Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.

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