Military News

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Recapitalizing JSTARS: the communication system

by Justin Oakes
66th Air Base Group Public Affairs


1/13/2016 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- Communication is key.

And for the Air Force's Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft, its communication component is one of four major areas undergoing a combined multi-billion dollar recapitalization.

Since JSTARS's introduction in 1991, Air Force command posts, Army mobile ground stations and many airborne platforms have come to rely on the information passed through the aircraft's communication system to make informed decisions on the battlefield.

Leading the charge on the communication system's revamp is a specialized defense acquisition team based out of Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts.

"Command and control is an integral part of JSTARS," said 1st Lt. George Steele, a program systems engineer for the JSTARS Recapitalization. "Without effective communication systems and equipment, it would be impossible for JSTARS to perform its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission."

The current E-8C JSTARS, which is equipped onto a Boeing 707 airframe, conveys real-time targeting information to allied forces using line-of-sight and beyond-line-of-sight secure data and voice links -- a capability that has evolved from Army and Air Force programs' desire to develop, detect, locate and attack enemy forces beyond the area of troops.

With the new communications system, "we intend to incorporate both LOS and BLOS data and voice links similar to the legacy aircraft, utilizing ultra-high frequency, very ultra-high frequency and high-frequency encrypted systems," Steele said.

As far as data is concerned, information will pass through satellite communication channels and the Common Data Link, a U.S. military developed protocol used to transfer images and intelligence signals.

In order to acquire these capabilities in a timely manner, Hanscom program officials will be taking a unique approach by embracing modern, existing technology, which will eliminate the need to develop components from scratch.

"There have been major technological advances since JSTARS was first introduced and deployed to Operation Desert Storm," Steele said. "By using current and emerging systems, it will allow for increased capability while reducing size, weight and power to the overall aircraft."

In addition to using readily available government and commercial-off-the-shelf products, the JSTARS Recap team plans to incorporate hardware and software geared toward open systems architecture. Meaning, when modifications or upgrades to the communications system are needed in the future, updates can be made with greater flexibility and lower cost.

"There are many benefits of using a modular open systems architecture," said Col. David Learned, JSTARS Recap program manager. "We have to consider how our investments today will impact the affordability and agility of JSTARS Recap throughout its system life cycle. That's why we are incorporating this type of architecture into many of the JSTARS components, not just the communications subsystem."

The JSTARS Recapitalization program recently passed from the Materiel Solutions Analysis phase to the Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction phase, upon an OSD-approved Milestone A decision Dec. 10, 2015.

Milestone A will allow the Air Force to exercise options on three existing contracts to further risk reduction efforts. The three separate options have a combined value of $45 million and will provide system functional, preliminary design reviews and subsystem prototype demonstrations.

According to Steele, the team is working hand-in-hand with industry through a series of face-to-face meetings, site visits and Hanscom AFB-hosted "industry days."

The JSTARS Recap team is also working with federally-funded research and development centers, Air Force Test Labs and industry defense contractors to evaluate and ensure the future needs of the JSTARS weapon system are met.

In the end, the communications system found on the JSTARS aircraft will allow for simultaneous voice and data transmission across battlespace.

"We're building a new system for the long haul," Steele said. "One thing is certain, the modernized version will allow JSTARS to have a major impact on current and future operations."

(Editor's note: this is the second story in a series on JSTARS Recapitalization)

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