One of the criticisms of U.S. defense procurement over the last twenty years is that the military continues to buy weapons systems designed for the Cold War that are not relevant to the current era of counterinsurgency campaigns and terrorist threats. So it is interesting, to say the least, when a weapons system that is an icon of that alleged Cold War mentality is proving itself to be of real value in the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. I am speaking of the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System or JSTARS.
Conceived of as a centerpiece in the integrated battle against Soviet hordes, JSTARS is an airborne command and control platform that can not only track hundreds of aircraft simultaneously, but direct both ground and air forces. Although never used for its original purposes, JSTARS has seen action in the 1991 Desert Storm campaign, over Kosovo in 1998 and in Operation Iraqi Freedom. This alone should demonstrate the value of the system in a post Cold War world.
JSTARS has proven itself just as effective in the kind of conflicts we are now confronting in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to recent press reports, this “Cold War relic” is tracking Taliban and Al Qaeda units in the wild and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. Unlike deployed unmanned aerial systems, the JSTARS can track fourteen separate targets simultaneously. Almost as important, because of its extensive command, control and communications capabilities, JSTARS is often serving as a real-time headquarters in the sky, directing air support for ground forces under attack. A planned upgrade to the JSTARS’s radar will enable it to track small targets on the water, such as Somali pirate craft.
Like so many Cold War systems from the M-1 Abrams and Bradley Fighting Vehicle to the Aegis ballistic Missile Defense System and the venerable F-15E, JSTARS has proven its worth across the spectrum of conflict. But like many of them, it requires continuous enhancements to be truly effective. In the case of JSTARS, what it needs most is new engines that would improve its performance dramatically, while lowering fuel and maintenance costs. Given JSTARS proven effectiveness, it makes sense for the Air Force to spend some money to extend the performance and the life of this valuable system.
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