08 Dec 03. having written a considerable amount of articles on Northrop’s E-8C Joint STARS (JSTARS), a modified Boeing 707-300 aircraft, it was a privilege to be asked on board by the U.S. Air Force to see the system at first hand. Although the platform, the Boeing 707 is well known to our readers it is only when you get on board that you understand the size and the capability of the system, awesome!
The 15, soon to be 17, aircraft are based at Robins Air Force Base, GA and assigned to the 93d Air Control Wing. On 1 October 2002, the Joint STARS aircraft will transfer to the 116th Air Control Wing composed of members of the Georgia Air National Guard and the active duty Air Force – the first “blended wing” in the U.S. Air Force.
The pilot took me round the cockpit of the aircraft which was still based on the old 707 configuration with three crew, two pilots and the flight engineer. “Power requirements are the most important after fuel, I was told,” The Flight Engineer has to manage the massive power requirement of our radar and console systems to ensure we are able to operate 24/7.” I asked the pilot about in-flight refuelling on hostile missions. ”We are assigned a pre-arranged position to rendevous with the tanker. Once in position, often in a queue with three other aircraft, there may be as many as three tankers on station refuelling nine aircraft at 500 ft intervals in depth, we work with the boom guide to plug the boom into the aircraft flying with the tanker with only thirty foot between aircraft for as long as twenty five minutes at 275 knots, when the tanker turns we turn.”
The USAF uses the boom system instead of the UK basket system as the boom system can dispense fuel at 6000lbs per minute instead of 600lbs through the basket (as much as the aircraft uses to stay on station). Aircraft will not refuel at altitudes below 20000ft.
Joint STARS is the most advanced targeting and battle management system in the world. From a standoff position, the aircraft – series commercial aircraft, manned by a joint Army-Air Force crew, – detect, locates, tracks, and targets hostile surface movements, communicating real-time information through secure data links to U.S. Air Force and U. S. Army command centers. The system also has great utility in special operations, crisis management and peacekeeping operations. The crew is fully autonomous on the platform operating under the operations commander who communicates to the AOC via datalink, satcom, 12 UHF ,3 VHF and 2 HF radios.
The radar which is mounted in a huge canoe under the belly is a joint SAR/MTI radar which operates in sideways swathes on its mission for distances up to 250km. SAR images, the primary mission, can be pinpointed and transferred to MTI to track hostile targets. Overlays of maps and other terrain can be placed with the images. “We are the first asset in theatre,,” BATTLESPACE was told, ”In a short time we can get a good idea of all the enemy’s positions, locate them and track them on a continuous basis. When we make our mission handover, we text the other aircraft with regard to mission status and target locations, making this a 24/7 operation in all weathers.”
I was shown the boxes where two new Compaq 700MHz computers had replaced the old system, with space to spare. In addition there is a staggering 72×18 Mg of ahrd drive to store all the radar missions. Dave Nagy of Northrop Grumman told me that the aim for the JSTARS system was to upgrade the system on a continuous basis. All the consoles now use Windows X technology so that operators fresh from University take a shorter time to get acclimatized to the system. A Lt-Col is in charge of the crew, which consists of a flight engineer and a maximum of 17 workstations all of which are interchangeable depending on the mission. There are two radar technicians to run the system, one for the radar, one for the computer and often a mixed crew of Army and Air Force personnel. Two or three weapo