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The Dallas Morning News November 6, 2001

Surveillance jets taking to skies over Afghanistan

By David Tarrant

The Pentagon is deploying two of its most sophisticated surveillance aircraft to help identify and track elusive enemy ground forces in all kinds of weather and perhaps prepare the way for a major ground offensive.

With the war on terrorism in Afghanistan entering its 30th day, deployment of the Global Hawk and Joint-STARS give commanders a wider view of the battlefield over a longer period of time than they have had up to now, according to Pentagon officials and military experts.

"If I was trying to find [Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed] Omar in southern Afghanistan or if I was trying to pick off Taliban reinforcements around Mazar-e Sharif, Joint-STARS would be useful in both those situations," said John Pike, analyst for the military think tank GlobalSecurity.org

As the bombing campaign focuses more on Taliban forces, surveillance planes can offer more precise targeting information. "They've gotten to the point in the bombing campaign where they're literally hitting individual vehicles," said Christopher Hellman, military analyst for the Center for Defense Information.

A Joint-STARS jet is "amazing at being able to find very small targets from very long distances - individual armored vehicles from over several hundred miles away," Mr. Hellman said.

Global Hawk unmanned surveillance planes, which are still in the development and testing stage, will make their combat debut. At least three of the drones are being deployed along with three Joint-STARS jets, which first saw action during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, officials said.

Global Hawk is a "long-endurance, unmanned air vehicle," which can stay up over the battlefield longer than other types of spy aircraft," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said Friday.

In a "hide-and-seek war" such as this one, finding good targets requires continuous, unimpeded observation, he said.

"The ability to put a vehicle over Afghanistan for long periods of time keeps eyes on [the enemy]," Adm. Stufflebeem said. "It does have an all-weather capability of looking through weather, and we'll certainly take advantage of that, but it also has sensors that will be terrific when it's bright and shiny."

Global Hawk's ability to operate at about 60,000 feet for more than 30 hours is unparalleled in reconnaissance aircraft, Mr. Hellman said.

Pentagon planners are eager to have continuous surveillance so they can better track the movement of vehicles and troops. That information can be used to support U.S. airstrikes as well as ground assaults by Northern Alliance or U.S. special operations forces.

U.S. officials have acknowledged that small teams of special forces are in Afghanistan to help coordinate airstrikes and provide other assistance to the Northern Alliance fighting against the Taliban.

A Joint-STARS jet boosts the capabilities of special operations forces to coordinate ground actions with air attacks. "They will be able to do real-time data links," Mr. Hellman said.

A Joint-STARS, or Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, is a Boeing 707 equipped with radar and electronic communications systems.

The Joint-STARS can look deep into hostile regions, covering a range of at least 150 miles - or an estimated 386,000 square miles - in an eight-hour sortie, according to military officials. It can distinguish between a tank and a wheeled vehicle.

"That will be helpful when you're looking for trucks or SUVs or others that are moving around," Adm. Stufflebeem said.

Two Joint-STARS aircraft were deployed in 1991 in Desert Storm, where the aircraft won praise for its ability to track mobile Iraqi forces, including tanks. During the battle of Khafji, Joint-STARS jets detected reinforcements of 80 Iraqi vehicles heading toward the city. The Iraqi force was stopped by airpower.


Copyright 2001 The Dallas Morning News