Failure To Use Radar Planes Against Taliban Is Foolish

Author(s): Loren B. Thompson, Ph.D.
Posted in: Defense

Issue Brief

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are reporting worrisome advances in the battlefield performance of Taliban insurgents. Enemy discipline and morale seem to be improving, encouraged no doubt by the inability of the relatively small NATO force to be everywhere that insurgents might strike. With indigenous security forces exhibiting very uneven performance and Western ambivalence about the war precluding a major increase in the number of foreign troops, it will be hard to make progress in stabilizing the country.

America and its allies seem to be courting the same sort of disaster in Afghanistan that U.S. forces faced in Iraq two years ago, so it is hard to understand why the Pentagon is not making full use of military systems relevant to the fight. But there is at least one readily available asset where that definitely is the case — the failure to use the dismounted-warfare detection and tracking capability of the 17 aircraft in the Air Force’s fleet of Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) planes.

JSTARS was conceived at the end of the cold war as an airborne sensor that could track the movement of surface targets and generate imagery based on their radar returns. This is a harder task than using a radar to track targets in the air because ground clutter generates such complex returns, but with advanced computers, a large-aperture radar and big power-generation capability, JSTARS has proven remarkably successful at finding enemy armored vehicles in places like Kosovo and Iraq.

The problem is that most people who know about JSTARS think that’s all it’s good for — tracking tanks in sandstorms. But the plane actually is much more versatile, and can be used quite effectively in irregular warfare missions like tracking insurgents who employ hit-and-run tactics. It has an inherent capacity to find what the Army calls “dismounted” targets, such as small groups and individuals planting improvised explosive devices. The same radar that monitors traffic in a 35,000 square-mile area can narrow its surveillance to concentrate on small patches of ground, detecting details likely to be missed by other joint reconnaissance systems.

This is important because most joint sensors are either so far away that they can’t detect details like small bands of insurgents, or they are so nearby that they cannot monitor broad areas. JSTARS can do both, covering vast spaces while simultaneously focusing in on smaller areas of interest. It won’t tell you what model of Toyota 4Runner the insurgents are driving, but it will tell you that there’s unusual movement in specific places and hand off that information for closer inspection by Predator surveillance drones or manned aircraft.

Which raises the obvious question of why JSTARS isn’t actually being employed that way in Afghanistan. The intelligence community uses it for various classified activities, but at a time when there is constant demand from U.S. commanders for ground-moving-target intelligence, most of the JSTARS fleet — the most powerful moving-target sensor in the joint inventory — sits at its home base in Georgia, contributing nothing to the fight. Why aren’t the planes in Afghanistan, helping to bridge the shortfall in friendly forces by applying technological tools that the Pentagon has spent billions of dollars to acquire?