National Guard May 2012 : Page 26

Eyes in the Sky A Georgia Air Guard unit uses an aging aircraft to give ground commanders an invaluable perspective on the entire battlefi eld By Andrew Waldman HE GLASS BUILDINGS, traffi c cir-cles and palm trees at the Northrop Grumman facility in Melbourne, Fla., suggest nothing more than a nondescript offi ce park. But behind the mundane trappings is an interesting tale. Within the walls of the facility located adja-cent to the Melbourne International Airport is the nerve center of the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, one of the most important intelligence, surveillance and recon-naissance (ISR) aircraft in the Air Force fl eet. T 26 | Na tional Guard

Eyes In The Sky

Andrew Waldman

A Georgia Air Guard unit uses an aging aircraft to give ground commanders an invaluable perspective on the entire battlefield

THE GLASS BUILDINGS, traffic circles and palm trees at the Northrop Grumman facility in Melbourne, Fla., suggest nothing more than a nondescript office park.

But behind the mundane trappings is an interesting tale.

Within the walls of the facility located adjacent to the Melbourne International Airport is the nerve center of the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, one of the most important intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft in the Air Force fleet.

The Joint STARS is a wide-area surveillance system with the ability to collect huge swaths of data in seconds and provide a picture of an entire battlefield. Nothing else like it exists in the Air Force inventory.

At Northrop Grumman, test engineers and developers use a full array of laboratories, including a full-scale mockup of the E-8C fuselage, to develop, update and test new systems for the aircraft. (The company also holds the contract for total system support.)

About 200 employees work at the Melbourne facility, and there’s a feeling there that the mission is more than just another contract.

“I think people here really care about this mission,” says Frank Finklestein, a Northrop Grumman flight-test engineer and program director. “Some might think this is a sales pitch, but I don’t.”

That sentiment is found also at the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base near Warner Robins, Ga., about 400 miles from Melbourne. The wing is an active associate unit, meaning the Air Guard “owns” the only E-8Cs in the Air Force fleet and works alongside the active-component’s 461st Air Control Wing to operate and maintain the aircraft.

Master Sgt. Joseph M. Kendrick, a supervisor in a tool supply shop at the 116th, exemplifies the enthusiasm for the mission. He spends his own time poring over civilian publications to find solutions to increase efficiency and decrease cost to maintain the aircraft.

Kendrick recently acquired an infrared sensing tester that tracks down electrical shorts in minutes. That task used to take hours with an older tool known as a multimeter.

“We constantly have to fly these things around the world,” he says. “It makes a big diff erence when you can see [a shorted wire in infrared] instead of chasing it down with a multimeter.”

This type of ingenuity by the wing and its counterparts at Grumman has kept the state-of-the-art aircraft flying Since it was first fielded in 1995.

But there are other modernization challenges facing the E-8C that could make or break the program in the next several years.


Like many Air Force airframes, Joint STARS was born in the midst of the Cold War. The Pentagon wanted an airborne radar system that could track Soviet tank columns if they invaded West Germany.

During the late ‘70s, both the Army and Air Force were working on separate systems to meet this need. In 1982, the Pentagon merged the separate efforts into a joint program.

Northrop Grumman won the contract to design and develop the Joint STARS aircraft. By the time the first aircraft was delivered in 1995, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union had broken apart, but the need for an unblinking eye in the sky remained.

Built on the Boeing 707 airframe, the E-8C is one of the most sophisticated ground-radar systems on the planet. With an average crew of 21 operators, including 17 to 19 airmen and two to four soldiers, Joint STARS can collect wide-area surveillance, track targets and produce imagery using synthetic aperture radar (SAR).

Using a full suite of communications functions ranging from secure telephones to the joint tactical radio system, aircrews are capable of performing command-and-control functions while collecting data.

But the aircraft’s main attraction has always been its ability to identify and track ground targets. The 24- foot radar, housed in a canoe-shaped fairing hanging from the belly of the plane, can survey an area about the size of the state of Florida with only a couple well-aimed sweeps.

The wide area of surveillance is a valuable asset to ground commanders, says Finklestein.

“That’s what this system does better than [anything] else,” he says. “It gives you an instantaneous battle picture.”

The collected data is displayed on a map as dots, which represent nearly every moving object on the ground, from a Marine Humvee to a Taliban truck.

This unique picture of the battlefield is in high demand. Members of the 116th and 461st have deployed continuously since 9/11. In Iraq, E-8Cs flew more than 50,000 hours.

Recently, the wings supported the NATO mission in Libya to help the Libyan opposition fighters oust Moammar Gadhafi.

Col. James K. Edenfield, the 116th’s vice commander, said the Libya mission displayed the full capabilities of Joint STARS. The aircraft provided both a big picture for command and control and the specific intelligence needed on objects moving on the ground.

Lt. Col. Thomas Grabowski, the commander of the 116th Operations Support Squadron, says this dual role is the greatest strength of the aircraft.

The analysts, sensor operators and radio operators in the rear of the aircraft simultaneously perform both roles.

“Because we do two missions … depending what phase of the conflict you are in dictates what the 21 people on the jet are doing,” he says.

Quoting an old advertising slogan, he adds, “We are both a candy and a breath mint.”


The can-do spirit of the 116th is evident every day on the flight line, where maintenance personnel fight an uphill battle against the ravages of time.

The 116th’s 17 aging aircraft were rebuilt from the bones out when they were fit for Joint STARS. Finklestein says the 707 is one of the most robust aircraft designs ever created. Boeing, he adds, purposely over-engineered the aircraft.

“They have been around for 50 years and they will be around for another 50 years,” he says.

But the aircraft’s engines are notoriously underpowered and inefficient. Each time an E-8C launches, it must immediately climb to altitude and take on fuel from a tanker, says Lt. Col. Chris Dunlap, the 116th Operations Support Squadron’s director of operations.

The airframe also doesn’t have modern avionics, he says, but the wing has experienced pilots to take advantage of the aircraft’s proven reliability.

“Are we a C-130J? No,” Dunlap says, referring to the updated cargo aircraft. “Do we have cool heads-up displays and night-vision goggles and all the latest and greatest? No. We have the old stuff. But we have been able to keep up with the requirements … worldwide so we can still get ourselves to the fight and do our jobs.”

Upgrading engines has been an on-and-off battle for several years. In 2008, Northrop Grumman received a contract to begin engineering and testing Pratt and Whitney JT8D-219 engines. The engines are more efficient and require significantly less maintainenance than the aircraft’s original powerplants.

A year later, the Defense Department gave the go-ahead for production. But the Air Force stalled. Today, the test engines are proven, but there is no immediate plan to re-engine the E-8C fleet.

The planes, however, are still performing well, according to Col. Michael J. Gaspar, the commander of the 116th Maintenance Group. He says his team is dedicated to keeping the old engines running. In fact, one of his airmen recently carried a part from Georgia to a base in Greece to repair a stalled aircraft.

“Engines have been performing better lately,” he says. “We meet the mission, obviously. If the money was there, or if there was a magic wand, if we could get new engines, it would make everything a whole lot easier.”
To further complicate matters, one of the 116th’s operational aircraft suffered a mishap three years ago while deployed and has been sitting unrepaired on a ramp overseas ever since. The Air Force decided not to repair the aircraft and cut it from the unit’s inventory in its fiscal 2013 budget request.

Also, the unit’s training aircraft exceeded the threshold cost for repair during depot maintenance and isn’t expected to be repaired.

But even as the fleet shrinks, the electronics and ISR technology in the remaining aircraft continues to be upgraded. An ongoing improvement to the radar allows the aircraft to more accurately collect data on maritime targets. Radar resolution has also been increased.

The improvements continue to be dictated by the needs of the war fighters. Ground moving-target indication data has only been available to ground commanders for about 20 years, but ground forces constantly demand JSTARS services, says Grabowski.

The data provides a wide area of Visibility, and with augmentation from other ISR platforms with narrower range, the GMTI data becomes an invaluable way to figure out where to “zero in” smaller ISR platforms like unmanned aerial vehicles.

One thing is for sure: ground commanders can’t get enough of the data.

“JSTARS plays a key role in helping commanders focus UAV sensors in priority areas with its wide-area surveillance capabilities,” retired Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Watts, a former 1st Infantry Division and VII Corps commander, wrote in an editorial for Army Magazine in January.

Despite the demand and recent upgrades, the future of Joint STARS is unknown. While the 116th and its counterparts in the 461st continue to make the plane relevant in the current fight, Air Force and Army partners aren’t certain how to proceed with the aircraft.

Proposals have been floating for years on new ways to accomplish the GMTI mission. A smaller platform is a popular idea in the Air Force, while cutting back on the Army personnel in the program is another. But nothing has changed recently.

Dale Burton, a Northrop Grumman senior vice president in charge of Joint STARS, says the aircraft’s ability to communicate is one of its main selling points in today’s environment where communication on smaller or unmanned aircraft is not as consistent.

“Until the military [communication] gets reliable in the battle space, you are going to need good line-of-sight communication,” he says. “You are going to need people to control the situation from high ground.”

Joint STARS aircraft are scheduled to fly well into the next decade. But even as the youngest member of the Air Force’s 707-based ISR platforms—the last E-8C was delivered to Georgia in 2005—Air Force officials don’t seem to know how to treat the aircraft.

Grabowski says that because the aircraft is capable of both command and control and ISR, there is confusion about where it falls on the organizational chart.

“That’s one of things that hurts us,” says Grabowski. “One of the challenges with having a dual- role platform . . . Is it becomes somewhat of a funding challenge.”

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