Saturday, August 29, 2009

JSTARS needs upgrades for its mission in Afghanistan

By David A. Fulghum and Amy Butler

The return of the U.S. Congress next month will reignite smoldering defense budget battles, and one new target of the budgeter’s ax could be upgrade packages for the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS)

The ground surveillance aircraft is slated to start flying out of Afghanistan next summer in response to an urgent need request for a dynamically-tasked, real-time airborne surveillance system that can track people in rough terrain.

But JSTARS needs airframe, engine and sensor upgrades to make an adequate transition to high-altitude airfields and more difficult intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations in the extremely rugged Hindu Kush, where line-of-sight surveillance is difficult. Also, the objects of greatest importance will be people moving at walking speed, not the vehicles that have been the JSTARS target set until now.

Modernization packages will include trading old PW-TF33-102C engines for new PW-JT8D-219s. In addition to more thrust, the new engines provide extra electrical power for additional sensors.The existing APY-7 phased array radar is to be improved with a software package that will allow it to track small, slow-moving targets like people. New to the aircraft will be the Senior Year Electro/optical Reconnaissance System (SYERS III) sensor — designed for but not installed on the U-2 — which offers multispectral sensing and full-motion video. A JSTARS cannot order weapons release with only a radar image. That requires an optical image of the target. But the combination of radar as a cuing device and a SYERS III in the same aircraft for rapid visual identification makes JSTARS a far more formidable and real-time combatant.

Despite the advantages of the improvement package, as the Air Force continues reconsidering its strategy for collecting ground surveillance, the fate of JSTARS has become uncertain, according to industry and government sources. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has not hesitated to cancel or shelve problematic programs or question others on their purported benefits in light of strict budget conditions and changing military needs.

Development continues on a new engine for the E-8C, but production funding for the purchase of the new propulsion systems appears to be on hold. A decision on when and whether to re-engine the JSTARS fleet will depend largely on the outcome of a forthcoming study on ground moving target indication (GMTI) collection.

“In no way, shape or form is the Air Force walking away from GMTI capability,” says Lt. Gen. Mark Shackelford, military deputy for the Air Force’s acquisition office. This review will commence early next year and will address the type and quality of GMTI required — dictating the technical requirements of a future sensor — as well as what platform would be most suitable to carry the system. Shackelford made his comments during an Aug. 27 roundtable with reporters at the Pentagon.

The re-engining proposed for JSTARS is expected to significantly improve the look-angle for the powerful radar by allowing the aircraft to operate at higher altitudes for improved intelligence collection. Also, “a byproduct of re-engining is the additional power to support a sensor upgrade,” Shackelford says.

JSTARS is facing diminishing manufacturing sources on the “back end” of the aircraft, which refers to the computer workstations on which radar data is processed and disseminated, he says. “When you start thinking about investment on the platform and keeping it around for a long, long time, you have to put all of these pieces together to decide what we want to do. That is another thing that is under deliberation.”

The JSTARS fleet was based on preowned 707 aircraft, some of which had bad corrosion problems. As a result, Air Force officials are weighing the value of extending the life of JSTARS against the cost of introducing a new platform. A decision on which model aircraft — likely a Boeing 767 or Airbus A330 — to purchase for a future USAF refueling tanker could provide an alternative vehicle for a next-generation GMTI collector, as well as signals and communications intelligence collection.


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