Military Wiki
E-8 Joint STARS
A U.S. Air Force E-8C Joint STARS, in flight.
Role Airborne battle management
Manufacturer Northrop Grumman
Introduction 1991
Primary users  United States Air Force
US-AirNationalGuard-2007Emblem.svg Air National Guard
Number built 17
Unit cost
US$244.4 million in 1998
Developed from Boeing 707

The Northrop Grumman E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) is a United States Air Force battle management and command and control aircraft. It tracks ground vehicles and some aircraft, collects imagery, and relays tactical pictures to ground and air theater commanders. The aircraft is operated by both active duty Air Force and Air National Guard units and also carries specially trained U.S. Army as additional flight crew.


Joint STARS evolved from separate United States Army and Air Force programs to develop, detect, locate and attack enemy armor at ranges beyond the forward area of troops. In 1982, the programs were merged and the U.S. Air Force became the lead agent. The concept and sensor technology for the E-8 was developed and tested on the Tacit Blue experimental aircraft. The prime contract was awarded to Grumman Aerospace Corporation in September 1985 for two E-8A development systems.


In late 2005, Northrop Grumman was awarded a contract for upgrading engines and other systems.[1] Pratt & Whitney, in a joint venture with Seven Q Seven (SQS), will produce and deliver JT8D-219 engines for the E-8s. Their greater efficiency will allow the Joint STARS to spend more time on station, take off from a wider range of runways, climb faster, fly higher all with a much reduced cost per flying hour.[citation needed] In December 2008, an E-8C test aircraft took its first flight with the new engines.[1] In 2009, the company began engine replacement and additional upgrade efforts.[1][2] However, the re-engining funding was temporarily halted in 2009 as the Air Force began to consider other options for performing the JSTARS mission.[1][3]


The Air Force began an analysis of alternatives (AOA) in March 2010 for its next generation ground moving target indication (GMTI) radar aircraft fleet. The study was completed in March 2012 and recommended buying a new business jet-based ISR aircraft, such as an Air Force version of the Navy P-8 Poseidon, and the RQ-4B Global Hawk Block 40. However, at a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting on 20 March 2012, the Air Force said it can not afford a new ISR platform. The E-8 is considered viable in the near and medium terms. As of October 2012, a test plane has had a Hewlett-Packard central computer installed, with work to begin on the rest in 2013. Before the AOA started, Northrop Grumman received funds for two batches of new engines. One set of engines has flown on a JSTARS test plane, and the other set is in storage. The Air Force does not plan to replace the engines of the 16-plane fleet due to the fiscal environment. The company wants to replace the aircraft's data link, but the Air Force will not, due to cost and because they can still receive data through satellite links. Northrop also wants to upgrade its communications with Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below because of the Army's shift towards the system. The Air Force says JSTARS is in a phase of the capability improvements and is expected to remain in operation through 2030.[4][5]


The E-8C is an aircraft modified from the Boeing 707-300 series commercial airliner. The E-8 carries specialized radar, communications, operations and control subsystems. The most prominent external feature is the 40 ft (12 m) canoe-shaped radome under the forward fuselage that houses the 24 ft (7.3 m) side-looking APY-7 phased array antenna.

The E-8C can respond quickly and effectively to support worldwide military contingency operations. It is a jam-resistant system capable of operating while experiencing heavy electronic countermeasures. The E-8C can fly a mission profile for 9 hours without refueling. Its range and on-station time can be substantially increased through in-flight refueling.

Radar and systems

Crew members uploading software onto an E-8 during preparations for a flight

The AN/APY-7 radar can operate in wide area surveillance, ground moving target indicator (GMTI), fixed target indicator (FTI) target classification, and synthetic aperture radar (SAR) modes.

To pick up moving targets, the radar looks at the Doppler frequency shift of the returned signal. It can look from a long range, which the military refers to as a high standoff capability. The antenna can be tilted to either side of the aircraft for a 120-degree field of view covering nearly 50,000 km² (19,305 mile²) and can simultaneously track 600 targets at more than 250 km (152 miles). The GMTI modes cannot pick up objects that are too small, insufficiently dense, or stationary. Data processing allows the APY-7 to differentiate between armored vehicles (tracked tanks) and trucks, allowing targeting personnel to better select the appropriate ordnance for various targets.

The system's SAR modes can produce images of stationary objects. Objects with many angles (for example, the interior of a pick-up bed) will give a much better radar signature, or specular return. In addition to being able to detect, locate and track large numbers of ground vehicles, the radar has a limited capability to detect helicopters, rotating antennas and low, slow-moving fixed-wing aircraft.

Joint STARS GMTI overlaid on aerial image

The radar and computer subsystems on the E-8C can gather and display broad and detailed battlefield information. Data is collected as events occur. This includes position and tracking information on enemy and friendly ground forces. The information is relayed in near-real time to the US Army's common ground stations via the secure jam-resistant surveillance and control data link (SCDL) and to other ground C4I nodes beyond line-of-sight via ultra high frequency satellite communications.

Other major E-8C prime mission equipment are the communications/datalink (COMM/DLX) and operations and control (O&C)subsystems. Eighteen operator workstations display computer-processed data in graphic and tabular format on video screens. Operators and technicians perform battle management, surveillance, weapons, intelligence, communications and maintenance functions.

Northrop Grumman has tested the installation of a MS-177 camera on an E-8C to provide real time visual target confirmation.[6]

Battle management

In missions from peacekeeping operations to major theater war, the E-8C can provide targeting data and intelligence for attack aviation, naval surface fire, field artillery and friendly maneuver forces. The information helps air and land commanders to control the battlespace.[7]

The E-8's ground-moving radar can tell approximate number of vehicles, location, speed, and direction of travel. It cannot identify exactly what type of vehicle a target is, tell what equipment it has, or discern whether it is friendly, hostile, or a bystander, so commanders often crosscheck the JSTARS data against other sources. In the Army, JSTARS data is analyzed in and disseminated from a Ground Station Module (GSM).

Operational history

Pilots from Robins Air Force Base cleaning the windshields of their E-8 before a mission in Iraq

The two E-8A development aircraft were deployed in 1991 to participate in Operation Desert Storm under the direction of Albert J. Verderosa, even though they were still in development. The joint program accurately tracked mobile Iraqi forces, including tanks and Scud missiles. Crews flew developmental aircraft on 49 combat sorties, accumulating more than 500 combat hours and a 100% mission effectiveness rate.

These Joint STARS developmental aircraft also participated in Operation Joint Endeavor, a NATO peacekeeping mission, in December 1995. While flying in friendly air space, the test-bed E-8A and pre-production E-8C aircraft monitored ground movements to confirm compliance with the Dayton Peace Accords agreements.[citation needed] Crews flew 95 consecutive operational sorties and more than 1,000 flight hours with a 98% mission effectiveness rate.

The 93d Air Control Wing, which activated 29 January 1996, accepted its first aircraft, 11 June 1996, and deployed in support of Operation Joint Endeavor in October. The provisional 93d Air Expeditionary Group monitored treaty compliance while NATO rotated troops through Bosnia and Herzegovina. The first production E-8C and a pre-production E-8C flew 36 operational sorties and more than 470 flight hours with a 100% effectiveness rate. The wing declared initial operational capability 18 December 1997 after receiving the second production aircraft. Operation Allied Force saw Joint STARS in action again from February to June 1999 accumulating more than 1,000 flight hours and a 94.5% mission-effectiveness rate in support of the U.S. lead Kosovo War.

On 1 October 2002, the 93d Air Control Wing (93 ACW) was "blended" with the 116th Bomb Wing in a ceremony at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. The 116 BW was an Air National Guard wing equipped with the B-1B Lancer bomber at Robins AFB. As a result of a USAF reorganization of the B-1B force, all B-1Bs were assigned to active duty wings, resulting in the 116 BW lacking a current mission. Extensive efforts by the Georgia's governor and congressional delegation led to the resulting "blending", with the newly created wing designated as the 116th Air Control Wing (116 ACW). The 93 ACW was deactivated the same day. The 116 ACW constituted the first fully blended wing of active duty and Air National Guard airmen.

The 116 ACW has been heavily involved in both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, earning high marks for operational effectiveness and recently completing 10,000 combat hours. The wing took delivery of the 17th and final E-8C on 23 March 2005. The E-8C Joint STARS routinely supports various taskings of the Combined Force Command Korea during the North Korean winter exercise cycle and for the United Nations enforcing resolutions on Iraq. The twelfth production aircraft, outfitted with an upgraded operations and control subsystem, was delivered to the USAF on 5 November 2001.

On 13 March 2009, a Joint STARS aircraft was damaged beyond economical repair when a test plug was left on a fuel tank vent, subsequently causing the fuel tank to rupture during in-flight refueling. There were no casualties but the aircraft sustained $25 million in damage.[8][9]

On 3 September 2009, Loren B. Thompson of the Lexington Institute raised the question of why most of the JSTARS fleet was sitting idle instead of being used to track insurgents in Afghanistan. Thompson states that the JSTARS' radar has an inherent capacity to find what the Army calls 'dismounted' targets—insurgents walking around or placing roadside bombs.[10] Thompson's neutrality has been questioned by some since Lexington Institute is heavily funded by defense contractors, including Northrop.[11]

Recent trials of JSTARS in Afghanistan are destined to develop tactics, techniques and procedures in tracking dismounted, moving groups of Taliban.[12] On 28 November 2010, amidst escalating danger of war breaking out between North and South Korea, the South Korean government requested the U.S. to implement JSTARS in order to monitor and track North Korean military movements near the DMZ.[13]

On 17 January 2011, Northrop Grumman's E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) test bed aircraft recently completed the second of two deployments to Naval Air Station Point Mugu, California, in support of the U.S. Navy Joint Surface Warfare Joint Capability Technology Demonstration to test its Network-Enabled Weapon architecture.

The Joint STARS aircraft executed three Operational Utility Assessment flights and demonstrated its ability to guide anti-ship weapons against surface combatants at a variety of standoff distances in the NEW architecture. The Joint STARS aircraft served as the network command-and-control node, as well as a node for transmitting in-flight target message updates to an AGM-154 C-1 Joint Standoff Weapon carried by U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornets using its advanced long range tracking and targeting capability.

From 2001 to January 2011 the Joint STARS fleet has flown over 63,000 hours in 5,200 combat missions in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and New Dawn.[14]

On 1 October 2011, the "blended" wing construct of the 116th Air Control Wing (116 ACW), combining Air National Guard and Regular Air Force personnel in a single unit was discontinued. On this date, the 461st Air Control Wing (461 ACW) was established at Robins AFB as the Air Force's sole active duty E-8 JSTARS wing while the 116 ACW reverted to a traditional Air National Guard wing within the Georgia Air National Guard. Both units share the same E-8 aircraft and will often fly with mixed crews, but now function as separate units.


E-8C performing flight testing with JT8D-219 engines at Edwards AFB

Original platform configuration.[15]
Single aircraft with mission equipment removed, used for flight crew training.[15]
Single aircraft, was to be a United States Navy E-6 but transferred to the United States Air Force as a development aircraft before it was decided to convert second-hand Boeing 707s for the JSTARS role.
Production Joint Stars platform configuration[15] converted from second-hand Boeing 707s.


United States

Specifications (E-8C)

Data from USAF Factsheet[16]

General characteristics

  • Crew: 4 flight crew
  • Capacity: 18 specialists (crew size varies according to mission)
  • Length: 152 ft 11 in (46.61 m)
  • Wingspan: 145 ft 9 in (44.42 m)
  • Height: 42 ft 6 in (12.95 m)
  • Empty weight: 171,000 lb (77,564 kg)
  • Max takeoff weight: 336,000 lb (152,407 kg)
  • Powerplant: 4 × Pratt & Whitney TF33-102C low-bypass turbofan engines, 19,200 lbf (85 kN) thrust each


  • Cruise speed: 390 kn (449 mph; 722 km/h) to 510 kn (945 km/h)
  • Optimum orbit speed: 449 mph (723 km/h) to 587 mph (945 km/h)
  • Endurance: 9 hours
  • Service ceiling: 42,000 ft (13,000 m)

AN/APY-7 synthetic aperture radar

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Re-engining the E-8 JSTARS". Defense Industry Daily, Mar. 23, 2010. Retrieved:
  2. USA Spending $532M to Upgrade its E-8 J-STARS Eyes in the Sky. Defense Industry Daily, Nov. 23, 2005. Retrieved:
  3. Boeing 767-400ER E-10A. Spyflight, June, 2008.
  4. USAF can't afford JSTARS replacement -, 20 March 2012.
  5. With No Replacement in Sight, Joint STARS Feel Strain -, 9 October 2012.
  6. Matthews, William Joint STARS Aircraft Tests U-2 Camera in Tandem With Radar Def News, 1 November 2010
  7. Coskuner, Nevin, Multimission Aircraft Design Study - Operational Scenarios. Air Force Institute of Technology
  8. A Basic Mistake that Trashed a JSTARS
  9. Accident Report
  10. Failure To Use Radar Planes Against Taliban Is Foolish
  11. Analyst's switch stirs tanker talk
  12. DefenceNews, Issue November 23, 2009.
  13. Gilligan, Andrew (28 November 2010). "North and South Korea move close to war footing". The Daily Telegraph. 
  14. Photo Release - Northrop Grumman's Joint STARS is Key Enabler in Success of U.S. Navy/Air Force Joint Surface Warfare Network-Enabled Weapon Joint Capability Technology Demons...
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 DoD 4120.15L, Model Designation of Military Aerospace Vehicles
  16. "Factsheets : E-8C Joint Stars". U.S. Air Force. 28 September 2007. Retrieved 3 October 2010.
  • Eden, Paul, ed. The Encyclopedia of Modern Military Aircraft. London, UK: Amber Books, 2004. ISBN 1-904687-84-9. 

 This article incorporates public domain material from the United States Air Force website

External links

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).