This November, an E-8A aircraft prowling off the Florida coast will flash a powerful radar beam at Cape Canaveral. Air Force officers will hold their breath, waiting to see how well the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System detects "movers" on the ground.
Thus will begin many months of key tests and fixes that will pit the first Joint-STARS airplane against targets ranging from a few trucks moving at medium speeds all the way up to large numbers of slow-moving tanks and other vehicles dispersed over vast stretches of US terrain.
The Air Force hopes that the end result will be an electronic marvel of an aircraft—able to peer deep into enemy territory to locate and target tanks. The reason is simple: This capability holds a key to NATO's "Follow-On Forces Attack" plan to counter Soviet landpower.
The ramrod of the Joint-STARS program, Air Force Systems Command's Electronic Systems Division at Hanscom AFB, Mass., has its work cut out for it. ESD is charged with running the tests to find the "bugs" in the plane and then bringing it up to snuff in Air Force estimation.
"It is going to be tough," remarks Col. Jack Colligan, ESD's Deputy Commander for Joint-STARS. "You're trying to precisely locate targets so that you can hit them, and you're trying to do that against things that are moving slowly. Obviously, that is a challenge."
The Joint-STARS plane that will go into action late this fall is the product of a cooperative Air Force and Army program to provide instantaneous battle surveillance and attack management for air and land combat, a program in full-scale development since 1985.
Plans call for the Joint-STARS craft to collect radar information on such targets as tanks, trucks, and personnel carriers over a broad area behind enemy lines and to pass the data to air and ground commanders.
In light of NATO plans to disrupt, delay, and otherwise bedevil Soviet "follow-on" forces to keep them from exploiting breakthroughs at the front, the value of a reliable Joint-STARS fleet becomes obvious. "A continuous, real-time picture downlinked to everybody," remarks ESD's Commander, Lt. Gen. Melvin Chubb, "[is] flat going torevolutionize the way we operate."
Flashy as it is, the $6.6 billion Joint-STARS project rates as but one of many important ESD efforts aimed at meeting US requirements for surveillance and command control communications and intelligence (C31).
On the strategic side, ESD has nearly completed installing the initial, "thin-line" segment of its Ground Wave Emergency Network (GWEN) for flashing emergency action messages to Strategic Air Command units. The SAC Digital Information Network, long in the making, has reached full operational capability. Over-the-Horizon Back-scatter Radar and Mil star communications terminals appear to have recovered from early problems.
The Tactical Focus
But of equal—or greater—significance is a host of ESD programs focused on tactical forces. Indeed, some Air Force officers perceive a shift in ESD emphasis these days away from the strategic and toward the tactical—partly because key strategic projects are nearing completion, but also because Washington clearly wants more tactical combat power.
"I think that that happens to be the wave right now," comments Brig. Gen. J. E. Freytag, ESD's recently retired Deputy Commander for Strategic Systems. "The thrust for several years will be tactical offense."
It is the Joint-STARS project itself that rates as the most striking example of the shifting perspective. The high-profile project is heading into a major expansion despite sharp pressure on Pentagon budgets.
Originally, ESD was to build ten Joint-STARS models by cramming its sophisticated radar, operations and control systems, and communications gear into rehabilitated C-18s, which are modified Boeing 707s. Norden builds the side-looking radar, Boeing provides the aircraft and radome, and Grumman handles total system integration.
Now, following a pivotal Defense Acquisition Board meeting in Washington last spring, Deputy Defense Secretary William H. Taft IV is giving the green light for a doubling of the force to twenty-two aircraft.
The expanded Joint-STARS program also abandons the plan to use older aircraft and instead will procure new planes, a change dictated in part by unanticipated difficulties with adapting older aircraft.
The clear front-runner for the Joint-STARS role, say ESD officials, is Boeing's 707 derivative known as the E-6A, a $60 million jet that meets the ESD requirement for four engines and ability to carry twenty-five tons to an altitude of 40,000 feet.
The expanded fleet isn't going to come cheap. In its Program Objective Memorandum for the 1990-94 defense plan, now under Pentagon review, USAF added $1.5 billion to the $900 million already approved. Another $1.5 billion increment was added in the years beyond 1994.
Strong backing notwithstanding, the Joint-STARS program is not yet out of the woods technologically. Far from it. The development effort is already about one year behind an admittedly ambitious original schedule.
The biggest challenge, say ESD officials, remains the software associated with the twenty-seven major processors that are to draw targets out of radar clutter. Colonel Colligan calls this "the long pole in the tent."
The task will require ESD contractors to write a program containing some 500,000 lines of new computer code, much of it very complex, with a total of 2,000,000 lines running throughout the airplane when in operation.
Only about a third of this task, say ESD insiders, has been completed. One of the reasons is that managers have gone to work first on the most difficult portions of the software, such as algorithms to use for ground clutter suppression. They say these major technical challenges have been largely solved.
Even so, says an Air Force officer, "you still have to figure out how you control this whole mess." That is the task for the system management program that runs the operation. Progress has been made, but this effort is not yet complete.
Joint-STARS's ultracomplex radar antenna shapes up as the pivotal hardware problem. More than twenty feet long and two feet thick, it will be put in a canoe-shape radome hung under the fuselage.
How complex is the Joint-STARS antenna? The answer, says General Chubb: ten orders of magnitude more complex than the antenna used by the E-3 AWACS, which is no primitive item itself.
Colonel Colligan, who once ran the AWACS program and should know, does not dispute this assessment. For one thing, he says, "AWACS is looking out into clear air with not much clutter. Joint-STARS is putting energy on the ground, where you have to worry about [radar reflection from] rocks."
Unlike the AWACS unit, the Joint-STARS radar must focus intently in one direction. Thus, beam control must be performed with great precision.
Throughout, there are 456 phase-shifters with 228 electronic packages that must be made to work in unison. Each of the signal processors on the Joint-STARS performs 625,000,000 operations per second, about the same speed as that of a Cray I computer.
At present, the first two Norden antennas, along with most of the black boxes for these, have been completed. The critical tests will come in future months when man agers start the process of playing these boxes together.
First range testing of the radar was undertaken in June, and the results and problems are now being analyzed.
Passing the Data
Also coming under close scrutiny are recent test results from another of ESD's top tactical programs—the Joint Tactical Information Distribution System, or JTIDS. The tests, conducted last month, will determine the immediate fate of this important system.
It is a digital, jam-resistant data communications system that someday might offer a powerful data hookup between Joint-STARS and front-line fighters as well as Navy antiair units and Army air defense squads.
A contractor team of Singer and Rockwell Collins is developing the JTIDS Class II terminals, which would be smaller and more sophisticated than older models. But there is skepticism about their reliability.
The first Class II terminals suffered a major setback last year when, during initial operational flight testing at Eglin AFB, Fla., the JTIDS mean-time-between-failures rate proved to be abysmally short.
ESD officials say lack of quality control and the system's own complexity—stemming from its 12,000 parts—was its undoing.
ESD is now completing a yearlong crash program that it hopes has discovered and fixed the problems. The program, which included severe stress tests, led to the redesign of twenty-five percent of the original Class II terminal.
"I anticipate that we're going to solve that problem," says Brig. Gen. Kenneth Staten, ESD's Deputy for Tactical Systems. "But this is one that you ought to take the Missouri approach to. You ought to believe it when you see it."
Anything less than total success in the tests, he suggests, might eliminate ESD's hopes of starting production in 1989 as planned. That hope might already be fading because of budgetary pressures.
No one, however, expects outright cancellation of the program. Reason: the high payoff that it promises to provide, once perfected.
By permitting exchange of data among all elements of counterair forces and integration of data from all sensors, JTIDS would give US fighters greater awareness of the combat situation and permit more efficient assignment of targets than is possible today.
If perfected, the JTIDS Class II terminal is certain to go on board the nation's fleet of thirty-four E-3 AWACS sky-sweeping sentry planes. It would be a key element of ESD's major program to upgrade these aircraft and keep them useful into the next century.
ESD currently is well along in full-scale development of articles and software for its so-called "Block 30/35" upgrade to the AWACS, a four-part, $650 million program spanning nearly a decade.
The upgrade, managed by Boeing, would integrate the JTIDS Class II terminals into the AWACS system, integrate Global Positioning System terminals, and upgrade the main IBM CC-2 computer to the CC2-3 configuration through installation of an advanced bubble memory that will increase its speed by a factor of four.
"Ears" for the AWACS
The fourth element, the so-called Electronic Support Measures program, is a cooperative US/NATO effort that will give the thirty-four US and eighteen NATO AWACS a highly sophisticated passive detection system to go with their active radar equipment. It is being performed by UTL Corp. of Dallas.
"This system," says Col. Jim Bash, program manager for the AWACS upgrade, "will be able to identify emitters out there using a huge data base that is being developed." This classified data base will compile information from US and allied intelligence sources.
ESD expects no problems with critical design review of the Block 30/35 upgrade, scheduled to take place in October. TAC aircraft will begin receiving the equipment in 1992.
Also in the works are two other major AWACS programs, the most important of which is the Radar Sensitivity Improvement Program now in the early development stage.
ESD has the job of making AWACS radars more capable of spotting and tracking airborne targets. It is not the radar itself that will be altered. Rather, the radar's computers will be given extra power. That will permit AWACS to see standard aircraft at greater distances as well as to spot smaller targets, such as cruise missiles.
The radar program has the potential for significantly extending current detection ranges against unstealthy targets.
The other program, just completing development, would integrate the new Have Quick II ultrahigh-frequency radios into the vast AWACS electronic architectures. Tested this past spring, the integrating system came through without a hitch.
Similar results can be found in ESD's portion of systems in the joint-service TRI-TAC communications program, set up to bring all the US military ground networks into the digital world for the first time.
The new systems, replacing similar items from the outdated analog world, are bringing about a quantum leap forward in communications capability as well as major gains in reliability and maintainability of the equipment.
The prime case in point is the Air Force's new troposcatter radio, the TRC-170, which is part of the TRITAC system.
Built by Raytheon, the tropo radios relay messages over distances up to 200 miles—far beyond the capabilities of earlier radios—simply by bouncing radio signals off the troposphere for receipt on earth. Not only do the tropo radios send messages farther, they also break less often and provide a higher degree of security.
Last October, US troops in West Germany took the radio out for a demonstration shot. Having always used the old TRC-97 radio, they never could transmit more than about sixty miles. "We put in a shot from about 115 miles," says an ESD program officer. "They didn't have to adjust anything. They set the antennas up. As soon as they turned it on, they were locked in."
More than 200 tropo radios have been delivered, with another 600 yet to be built at a cost of about $1 million each. Unisys of Salt Lake City has won the right to compete against Raytheon. It should have achieved qualification by 1989.
"Seeing" Cruise Missiles
On the strategic side of the ESD house, the going has been difficult in many programs—mainly as a result of up-and-down funding over the years. Still, program officials can point to steady progress in recent months in developing new surveillance and C3 systems.
ESD's Over-the-Horizon Back-scatter (0TH-B) radar system is a case in point.
0TH-B transmitter antennas bounce high-frequency signals off the ionosphere to the earth's surface. The signal is then reflected toward a receiving antenna. When the signals strike airborne targets at any altitude, they bounce back with data on their precise location.
After long delays, the first two sectors of the three-part East Coast 0TH-B system, based in Maine, went into limited operation and are now into their eighth month of use. The central sector is scheduled to begin limited operations this month. And a West Coast system is well into construction.
Even more significant, however, was the outcome of ESD's so-called Small Target Test Program (STTP) conducted in recent months. ESD picked up valuable data about how to detect and track cruise missiles with 0TH-B, though the radar system was not originally designed to do so.
ESD began testing last January by sending remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) that resemble cruise missiles against the East Coast facility, launching a total of twenty-nine RPV missions over a range of altitudes, at different times of day and night, and at various aspect angles, including head-on.
One result of this sequence, according to Col. James Lee, the 0TH-B program manager: "We can say is that we do have a capability against the cruise-missile threat with the East Coast system."
A more important result, however, is that the testing provides hard information about the proper kinds of improvements to make to the remaining West Coast, Alaska, and Central 0TH-B radar segments as they are developed and deployed.
The RPV testing is complete, but the STTP will continue through the summer. ESD will conclude an official report on the tests sometime early in the fall.
In another aspect of strategic air defense, the US/Canada North Warning System is heading for operational status in 1992, apparently on schedule. The NWS, composed of fifty-two new radar stations facing the Arctic, will replace the aging Distant Early Warning Line. 0TH-B and NWS, taken together, are expected to give Washington a superior new early warning system against Soviet air attack.
What's more, ESD appears to be pressing forward with its portion of the Air Defense Initiative (ADI), a research program set up in 1985 to develop the kinds of advanced surveillance and battle management technologies, and ways of integrating them, that might help yield an in-depth defense against bombers and low-flying cruise missiles.
ESD's portion of ADI is currently in the concept-definition phase only, with no new starts on the horizon. But there is plenty of action.
ESD's Advanced Surveillance and Tracking Technology (ASTT) program seeks to develop new sensors that can be teamed up with the OTH-B and others in providing "wide-area surveillance" of all air approaches.
What's more, the year 1989 will see acceleration of technology work—ranging from work in infrared spectrum technology to work in various L-band surveillance radars.
Other ADI engineers are studying such new ideas as picket-ship RPVs over Canada and neural networks to help air defenders sort out targets. These ideas are being pulled together by four contractor teams given a mission to think up different kinds of ADI "architectures." The contractor team-leaders are General Dynamics, Hughes, SAIC, and Raytheon.
The situation in ADI is summarized in this fashion by one ESD worker: "The good news—and bad news—is that there are more technical opportunities than we can afford. The real challenge is to figure out how to keep the technology fires burning while responsibly begin-fling to select and invest increasingly larger amounts in the things that have the highest payoffs and the most relevance to the user."
Steady Milstar Steps
In the C3 segment of the strategic modernization program, the highest priority is the classified Lockheed EHF Milstar communications satellite and its associated terminals. The latter are being built by Raytheon, teamed with Bell Aerospace and Rockwell Collins.
At the heart of the Milstar program is its ability to provide global two-way communications to the strategic and tactical forces that will be less susceptible to the effects of nuclear detonations and jamming. Critical as this is to US nuclear strategy, both the Milstar satellite program and the terminals program have lagged.
Col. Richard Bush, ESD's head of the terminals program, estimates that the overall Air Force Milstar effort remains eighteen to twenty-four months behind schedule. ESD's terminals portion is about halfway through development.
Even so, ESD officials believe they have turned the corner on this critical program. There is evidence to support their case.
First, engineers predict that the Air Force will complete its total, formal qualification for all the black boxes for the Milstar terminals by the end of the year. This is expected to apply to both hardware and software elements.
What's more, says Colonel Bush, there have been two successful tests at the system level in recent months—one where a Milstar terminal and a prototype Milstar satellite communicated together, the other being a successful communication between an Air Force and Navy terminal.
"What I will assert to you is that our technical problems are now largely behind us," says Colonel Bush. "I would not have made this same statement to you a year ago." Funding, however, remains problematic.
ESD reached another milestone of sorts earlier this year with establishment of full operational capability of its long-awaited SAC Digital Information Network (SACDIN). ESD's work on the 135 functional areas of the SACDIN system has been completed and is undergoing final evaluation. Operational control is scheduled to be formally passed to SAC operators this month.
It has been a long wait for the SACDIN system, which provides high-speed transmission of data from US command centers to SAC bomber and missile centers. First proposed in different form in 1969, the development program has had a bumpy road, with many changes to system schedules and direction.
Now that it's completed, however, ESD officials and SAC appear to be pleased with the results. Maj. Wayne Balcom, SACDIN's program manager, says the system would permit the President to flash a vital emergency action message to all bomber and missile locations in a mere fifteen seconds or less—all of it encrypted and secure.
Beyond the "Thin Line"
Similar results can be seen in the development of the nation's Ground Wave Emergency Network, a multi-station linkup of low-frequency radio towers and receiving terminals that would be resistant to the effects of nuclear electromagnetic pulse that could knock out other systems during the first stage of a nuclear exchange.
ESD has completed the development tests portion of the program, which in its initial "thin-line" configuration will consist of fifty-six relay nodes. Now under way is the initial operational test and evaluation phase, intended to confirm to SAC that the system will meet its needs.
Construction of the relays in this initial phase is nearly completed. Fifty-one of the fifty-six nodes have been erected. Site selection, evaluation, or construction is under way on the final five, located in Colorado, southern New Jersey, and three sites in the New England region.
Between now and 1996, according to current Air Force plans, the initial system will be expanded to approximately ninety-six relay towers, the better to provide redundancy for the critical communications system. Even this, however, would mark a sharp reduction of the program, which originally envisioned building as many as 240 towers.
"Obviously, you can't reach as many places as many ways with fewer towers," explains Lt. Col. William Colmer, ESD's GWEN program manager. "But we have found that ninety-six relay nodes will do an excellent job of performing the system task."
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag