The E-8C Joint Stars is supposed to start operations in Afghanistan next summer, but if Air Force officials cut upgrade packages (see link for AvWeek story), it may not be the higher-flying, multi-sensor platform that warfighters are hoping for.
Credit: Northrop Grumman
It certainly will not be able to meet the Joint Warfighter Urgent Operational Need request for a dynamically-tasked, real-time airborne surveillance system that can track people in rough terrain.
The heavily loaded Joint Stars, which has thrust and runway length restrictions even at sea level, requires modernization of airframe, engines and sensors to make an adequate transition to high altitude airfields and more difficult ISR operations in the extremely rugged Hindu Kush. High mountains and deep valleys make line-of-sight surveillance difficult. Also, the objects of greatest importance will be people moving at walking speed, not vehicles which have been the Joint Stars 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 improvements will also include radar software upgrades and a new Senior Year Electro/optical Reconnaissance System (SYERS III) sensor which was designed for but not installed in the U-2 which is nearing retirement.
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. That particular choice of words translates to “people” who can go where vehicles can’t. New to the aircraft will be the SYERS III sensor that offers multi-spectral sensing and full motion video. A Joint-Stars can not 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 Joint-Stars a far more formidable and realtime combatant.
Despite the advantages of the improvement package, as the Air Force continues reconsidering its strategy for collecting ground surveillance, the fate of the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint Stars) has become uncertain. Defense Secretary Gates has remained remorseless in his defense cutting.
Development continues on a new engine for the E-8C, however 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 Joint Stars 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 Joint Stars is expected to significantly improve the look angle for the powerful radar sensor by allowing the aircraft to operate at higher altitudes for improved intelligence collection.
“A byproduct of re-enginging is the additional power to support a sensor upgrade,” Schackelford says. That brings to mind [the question of] what kind of sensor do you want on your platform.”