|JSTARS - Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System|
|The Mission and the People|
The crew on the command and control aircraft was buckled in and awaiting takeoff. It was 6 a.m., and the mission was to support an Army exercise called Lancer Lightning, almost five hours northwest, at a location over Washington’s Mount Rainier.
The 16th Airborne Command and Control Squadron patch on the shoulders of the crew members declares they “light the way.” Yet on this dark, early morning at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., there was little spark in these drowsy airmen as they waited to travel across three time zones.
That sleepy state got a jump start 45 minutes later. An onboard emergency forced the crew to don yellow, rubber oxygen masks to protect them from fumes in the aircraft. Within minutes, the odor from an overheated console cleared, and the masks were removed. The planned simulated mask exercise, announced at the beginning of the flight, was no longer necessary. Everyone reacted quickly to this real-world situation. Despite the early morning “show time,” it seemed this kind of flexibility kept these crew members sharp and focused.
The joint surveillance target attack radar system — or JSTARS — was born through an agreement between the Air Force and Army to provide ground-situation information. In September 1996, the system was approved for full-rate production of 14 aircraft. Twelve have been delivered to the 93rd Air Control Wing at Robins — the only site to house the aircraft. The system provides coordination via secure data links between Air Force air operations centers, Army mobile ground stations and centers of military analysis away from the point of conflict.
That means one of the platform’s primary missions is to support the “dance” of Army ground operations. As the senior director, Capt. Pete Haussler is the equivalent of a “choreographer.” He ensures on-board sections combine to create an operational work of art.
He uses intelligence and radar data to convey threat information to weapons and surveillance operators, and the sensor management officer. Like many of his fellow crew mates, Haussler came to the 93rd with an extensive airborne warning and control system background. With eight years’ experience on the E-3 Sentry, Haussler knows it’s been a challenge to define the newer platform’s joint operational role within the aerospace force.
“JSTARS focuses on the mission requirements of the Army’s ground component commander,” he said. “It presents a capability many ground commanders may have never had in the past.”
Although he admits “marketing” the aircraft’s technology is difficult, he’s convinced the importance of providing an accurate ground picture is solidified with every training opportunity. Especially since the system can determine the direction, speed, patterns and types of ground vehicles and low-flying aircraft.
It’s the most sophisticated radar on an Air Force plane, and it can monitor ground movement as subtle as a windmill turning in the breeze, locate a parked vehicle or identify the details of a surface crater with the touch of a button. And it can be tailored to meet the needs of a specific mission, balancing timing, quantity and quality.
What’s more, its radar can do all this under the cover of darkness and in inclement weather, meaning the enemy can’t hide, especially
on moonless, cloudy nights.
To the handful of soldiers working aboard, this is music to their ears. Army Maj. David Ponsell III gets to see the “air side of taking ground” as the liaison between the ground commander and air crew. This military intelligence officer coordinates and communicates the ground commander’s needs through hourly reports.
But that’s not always easy, according to Maj. Joe Richardson, mission crew commander.
“The biggest challenge is melding the Army piece and the Air Force piece because we work with two different commanders — the air and ground component commanders. Balancing that out is sometimes difficult.”
Linking the joint systems to build and relay the battlefield picture is a concerted effort between airmen and soldiers. And despite the playful service rivalry, there’s harmony.
“It’s completely different and a refreshing change working with the Air Force,” Ponsell said. “Being able to educate [airmen] and be educated by these guys is a great opportunity. They tell me how we can best use the aircraft, and I help them understand how we can support ground operations.”
That sentiment is echoed by even the most junior of crew members.
“Working with the Army isn’t an opportunity many Air Force people at my rank get,” said Airman 1st Class Andrew Ong, an air operations technician. “We talk the same language even though the culture’s different. But you get used to it after awhile.”
And it’s not just rookie airmen who appreciate the scope of this joint mission.
The platform provides a never before seen forward look for Army ground commanders. Once they see what it provides, they’re reluctant to go without the expanded capability, Ponsell said.
Although they practice their mission regularly through daily flight and simulator sorties, the crews fly all over the world supporting joint exercises as well as Air Force and Marine Corps weapons schools.
“We do a lot of simulated training missions,” Ong said. “But it’s nice to have real people looking at our data because it gives us the opportunity to show the rest of the military what we do.”
For the last year, Ong’s been responsible for organizing radar data into useful information from one of the plane’s 17 operations consoles. His assignment at Robins is his first. And despite his rookie enthusiasm, he understands the challenges of the mission.
“We do a job that a lot of people don’t understand because we’re so new,” he said. “We don’t exactly have our own place in the Air Force yet. But there are a lot of people working hard to get us there.”
Article by1st Lt. Carie A. Seydel, Published in Airman's Magazine