If new White House budget projections for the coming decade are correct — deficits averaging nearly a trillion dollars per year — then the joint force is going to have to get along with a lot less money. That means fewer weapons programs, fewer warfighters, and fewer overseas commitments. It should also mean getting as much functionality as possible out of the military assets we already own. But institutional barriers and lack of imagination continue to foster under-utilization of valuable capabilities.
One example is the Air Force’s Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), a radar plane with the capacity to track ground movements over a 35,000 square mile area. Nothing like it has ever existed before, and it enabled the joint force to wipe out enemy armor during the Iraq war even in the midst of raging sandstorms. But what most users don’t realize is that the radar has a built-in ability to narrow its gaze down to a dozen or more small swaths of ground and monitor them closely while still doing broad-area surveillance. With that greater degree of “granularity,” it can see things like small units and individuals acting suspiciously.
It is precisely such “dismounted” personnel who plant most improvised explosive devices. Because the power output and aperture size of Joint Stars radars are so much greater than those of radars on unmanned surveillance drones, they can detect the details of dismounted movement from much further away than other surveillance assets available to the fielded force. The Army usually prefers to rely on video from vehicles like Predator, but by itself Predator is unlikely to find most dismounted enemies because its field of view is so limited. If joint tactical operations were as seamless as we would like them to be, the Air Force could use the ability of JSTARS to track dismounted enemies as a cueing system for other sensor vehicles like Predator — which could then positively ID them. Instead, almost nobody fighting in Afghanistan realizes the capability exists.
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