Marines, sister services increase capabilities through Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System

24 Jul 2010 | Staff Sgt. Danielle M. Bacon 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit

A single rod of steel is strong but forged with others becomes a crushing force to be reckoned with.

This theory was tested during Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) as 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit aboard ships of the Navy’s Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group teamed up with the Air Force and Army to expand their ability to move over the horizon using the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.

"This is the first time that Strike Force Training Atlantic invited JSTARS to participate in an ARG/MEU COMPTUEX as a fully integrated resource," said David J. Gellene, N57 plans director for Commander, Strike Force Training Atlantic. JSTARS participated in another MEU's COMPTUEX in Feb. 2009, but only as a proof of concept event, Gellene said. The Kearsarge ARG/26th MEU's exercise marks the first time JSTARS was integrated into COMPTUEX scenario-driven exercises.

The Air Force and Army’s battle-proven JSTARS out of Robins Air Force Base, Ga., is a long-range, air-to-ground surveillance system designed to locate, classify and track ground targets.

JSTARS has the ability to look deep behind hostile lines to detect and track ground and sea movements in both forward and rear areas, said Air Force Capt. Jay Vazcarra, senior director of the weapons team for JSTARS. Vazcarra coordinated JSTARS operations aboard USS Kearsarge, while US Army soldiers operated the aircraft, feeding information to the ship.

Marines benefited from JSTARS data used to track activity ashore, while ARG sailors monitored maritime surface activity.

“COMPTUEX has provided the MEU an opportunity to showcase its ability to integrate in a joint environment beyond the traditional Navy and Marine Corps team,” said Capt. Michael Lorino, the MEU’s assistant intelligence officer.

During COMPTUEX, JSTARS was employed in many different facets beyond ground target tracking – from humanitarian assistance to tracking ship movement, each of which has a potential for unseen dangers.

“If we were to conduct a humanitarian assistance mission, JSTARS could be used to identify where the people are and roads that are not useable,” said Lorino. “The aircraft can tell us all this in a matter of a couple hours rather than putting us in danger or employing our assets to that location.”

The Boeing 707-300 series aircraft, which can fly at 30,000 feet, also augments the Marine Corps and Navy’s command and control capabilities.

Once the JSTARS identifies a threat outside of the naval coverage area, they can put it on the ship’s radar so that Marines and sailors can also track it. The MEU or ARG can then employ any of their assets to assess or further develop the situation.

For example, during one part of the exercise, JSTARS identified three training mines in the ships’ path, explained Vizcarra. Helicopters were deployed to check them out and mark the mines with smoke, and the ships changed their route to go around them.

“The added capability allows us to see ships and where they are going sooner than we would with our own radar,” said Navy Lt. Will Barth, collection manager aboard USS Kearsarge. “Basically it takes the radar screen that we can normally see and expands it out.”

Barth explained that the JSTARS allows the ships more time to react and confront potential threats.

Although JSTARS is new to maritime searching, the concept is the same as that of its mission in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters. Lorino explained JSTARS has been used to watch borders and checkpoints and to identify threats.

If 20 cars are driving down the road toward a checkpoint and one veers off or is driving alone near a border, then you would want to check that car out, said Lorino. “It’s the same with ships using the shipping lanes.”

JSTARS is here to expand on detection and tracking and enlarge the recognized maritime picture for the Navy and Marine Corps, while augmenting their command and control capabilities, Vizcarra said. It enhances the Navy and Marine Corps’ efforts by integrating non-organic assets to the fight.

“This is a very unique opportunity," said Lorino. Historically, a MEU has not had an opportunity to work in depth with JSTARS, but COMPTUEX could mark a change in the amount of interaction Marines have with the system.

Vizcarra explained that although not common, JSTARS is scheduled to increase the amount of time it works with the Navy and Marine Corps over the next year.

“It has been a great exercise,” said Vizcarra, who also briefed MEU and ARG leaders on the possibilities JSTARS offers, "nothing but success.”

26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable)