‘Chat room’ update boosts capabilities of Joint STARS jets

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE — All 17 Joint STARS aircraft at Robins Air Force Base have been transformed into electronic “chat rooms” in a way that greatly expands the ground surveillance system’s already substantial contribution to the battlefield.

Following software and hardware updates to the aircraft and completion of a ground entry station in Virginia, mission crew members onboard the four-engined jets have access to beyond-line-of-sight communications.

The update complies with a February 2007 urgent-operational-need request filed by Lt. Gen. Gary North, commander of the Air Forces Central Command.

“In layman’s terms, it gives us instant messaging,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Grabowski, director of plans and programs for the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins, the only Air Force unit flying Joint STARS, which are modified Boeing 707s.

“Before this, we were restricted to line-of-sight radios and other data links,” he said. “With this increased capability, we can talk real time to folks anywhere in the world.”

The new system allows crew members to have up to 10 secure chat rooms open at the same time, Grabowski said. “So I can be linked to the intelligence officer on the ground, the combat operations guys, the defense guys, the battle captain and I’m talking real time with them,” he said.

Imagery of a potential threat now can be put in a search engine for potential matches, imbedded in an e-mail for additional “eyes-on,” or inserted into chat conversations with ground convoys to confirm the threat level, according to an Air Force release.

“I can get imagery and intelligence feeds at a much faster rate,” the senior planner said. “It reduces what we call the kill chain time for information from the battlefield. We can make decisions quicker because we’re getting the information faster.”

The 751st Electronic Systems Group at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., oversaw the installations at Robins in conjunction with Northrop Grumman, the Joint STARS prime support contractor. Each installation, including a new satellite antenna, required about six days.

Joint STARS, a workhorse in the global war on terrorism, employs a 24-foot, belly-mounted radar attached to sophisticated, on-board computers and communications gear to detect, identify and track enemy ground movements at ranges of more than 150 miles. Typically, four or more of the jets are deployed to a forward operating location at any given time along with air, mission and maintenance crews. Each Joint STARS carries a flight crew of four and a mission team of 18.

Grabowski returned from Iraq in November on one of the first aircraft equipped with the beyond-line-of-sight upgrade.

“It’s a fantastic tool,” he said, “particularly if we’re having atmospheric problems with our radios. This satellite capability and the Internet are very reliable, and they make our job much easier.”

To contact writer Gene Rector, call 923-3109, extension 239.