The USA’s E-8 JSTARS is a Boeing 707-300 derivative that provides a picture of the ground situation analogous to the E-3 AWACS’ picture of the air situation. JSTARS aircraft use their radars to determine the direction, speed and patterns of military activity of ground vehicles, helicopters, and even groups of people. They then send this information via secure data links with air force command posts, army mobile ground stations and centers of military analysis around the world.
These surveillance and communications relay capabilities are somewhat unique, and have proven extremely useful in a series of conflicts from Desert Storm in 1991 to the present day. Europe originally intended to field a similar, smaller AGS aircraft based on the Airbus A321, but that project has now been cut to a small fleet of RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs. With the Global Hawk limited by its payload capacity, and the USA’s E-10A program canceled, the USA’s 17-aircraft operational JSTARS fleet is likely to remain very popular for some time to come. The question is how to keep that fleet relevant, flying, and allocated among all of the units clamoring for their attention.