Joint STARS in Bosnia
Too Much Data--Too Little Intel?
by Lieutenant Colonel Collin A. Agee
On the heels of great success in Operation DESERT
STORM, a more mature Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar
System (Joint STARS) deployed in support of Operation JOINT
ENDEAVOR in December 1995. The system was technically a quantum
improvement from its desert-tested predecessor. However, the
intelligence community struggled to constructively apply the system
to peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. This article examines the
application of a technologically advanced system to stability and
support operations (SASOs) and documents lessons
learned specifically for our doctrine and force structure and
delves into the complexities of combined operations and the
implications for intelligence operations.
DESERT STORM A Tough Act to Follow
Joint STARS was justifiably lauded as one of the star performers
during Operation DESERT STORM. U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff
General Merrill A. McPeak gushed, We will not ever again want to
fight without a Joint STARS kind of system. It is just terrific.
Major General Stephen Silvasy, the Deputy Chief of Staff for
Concepts, Doctrine and Development at the Army Training and
Doctrine Command (TRADOC) seconded, Joint STARS worked. It saved
countless Allied lives and proved to be critical to the outcome of
DESERT STORM. The VII Corps Commander, General Frederick M.
Franks, Jr., provided this ground commander's assessment
Joint STARS' power and flexibility provided the United
States Army with a new dimension of battlefield surveillance which
made a significant contribution to the overwhelming victory in
Given that the system was in its infancy, just two days in theater
when the DESERT STORM ground campaign commenced, this performance
was incredible. But a more favorable scenario could hardly have
This last bullet may be less obvious and certainly less
benign than the others, but provided immediate tangible feedback as
to the system's contributions to the war effort, usually in the
form of burning tank hulks.
- A largely armored enemy that moved in mass formations.
- A clearly defined line separating the forces, at least at
- Limited civilian vehicular traffic.
- Virtually no terrain sufficient to cause radar masking.
- Minimal vegetation or built-up areas.
- Uniform, flat soil.
- Air supremacy and the freedom to use airspace for
- The mission, assets, and capability to destroy identified targets.
A Challenging Operational Environment
By contrast, Bosnia was much more problematic for the Joint STARS
At one point, this accumulation of obstacles led the
Ground Station Module (GSM) Task Force Commander, Lieutenant
Colonel Steve Rotkoff, to call the system a nuclear sub in
- A non-standard enemy, at dispersed locations. The most
immediate threats to the Peace Implementation Force (IFOR) was
mines and snipers, neither of which Joint STARS could detect.
- A zone of separation (ZOS) that plotted on the map like
a drunk serpent.
- Extensive civilian traffic along the same routes used by
the military. In fact, freedom of movement was one of IFOR's
measures of success, so as the mission succeeded, the use of Joint
STARS to track military movement got harder. Of note, however, is
the fact that Joint STARS excelled at documenting this increased
freedom of movement, both quantitatively and geographically.
- Truly rugged terrain, with 70 to 80 percent of the land
mass of the former Yugoslavia covered by hills and mountains.1 In
the French sector, radar shadowing was 84 percent. Smooth surfaces
on some of the mountain faces generated false returns that were
interpreted as moving target indicators (MTIs); a software fix is
in the works.
- Considerable forested areas.
- Varied terrain ranging from mountains to karst, with
numerous basins and valleys.
- Air supremacy, but active surface-to-air missiles and
significant impediments to the most favorable orbits and aerial
refueling locations due to civilian air traffic.
- A SASO environment in which a conventional attack was a
Despite this group of obstacles, the Supreme Allied Commander
Europe, General George A. Joulwan, without question wanted Joint
STARS at his disposal for peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. His
vision was that Joint STARS, in conjunction with cross-cued
collectors, most notably the Airborne Reconnaissance Low (ARL)
system, would serve as his tools to monitor the ZOS, allowing him
to gauge and enforce compliance with the Dayton Peace Accord. He
articulated this vision to Colonel Robert DeBusk, the commander of
the Joint STARS Squadron, Joint Task Force (JTF) 4500
(Provisional), on 2 January 1996. He made these comments during a
rampside visit to the operational base for the Joint STARS aircraft
at Rhein Main Air Force Base, Germany.
General Joulwan's intent was to confront factional leaders with
hard (photographic) evidence of noncompliance. In fact, he proposed
taking them for demonstration rides in the collection platforms to
make clear that we were watching. I will discuss the ability to
satisfy this intent later.
One of the most significant challenges of the Joint STARS
deployment was integration into a combined operation, with support
rendered to British and French Divisions as well as various
combined headquarters. Potential consumers of Joint STARS products
included both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and
non-NATO members of IFOR, including the Russian Brigade.
Upon arrival in theater in late November 1995, Lieutenant Colonel
Rotkoff and his staff began a frantic series of coordination visits
to plan for a dozen GSMs at eleven sites in four countries. Unfortunately,
the soon-to-arrive systems, with
more than a dozen personnel and their complement of vehicles at
some sites, had not been coordinated at national levels nor their
acceptance articulated to the supported units. This placed the GSM
coordination teams in the undesirable position of being traveling
For those systems in the box (Bosnia), the European Command
(EUCOM) assigned logistical responsibility to the U.S. Army Europe
(USAREUR), a logical arrangement since these teams were supporting
ground units. For the two GSM teams outside the U.S. sector,
USAREUR's ability to provide daily supply of the most mundane
necessities food, fuel, water, laundry and a place to sleep was
virtually impossible due to the distance to the nearest U.S. unit
or line of communication (LOC).
The British Headquarters (HQ) at Gornji Vakuf provides the most
dramatic example. Though located only about 40 kilometers as the
crow flies from U.S. elements in Sarajevo, there was no connecting
LOC. Resupply was only available via the British convoy from the
port city of Split, Croatia. It soon became obvious that life
support could only be obtained from the supported unit. In an
immature theater with scarce resources, this initially appeared to
be a problem. The USAREUR Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence
(DCSINT) discovered that there are implementing arrangements for
mutual logistics support in effect with our Allies. This means of
solving the logistics problem would have entailed tracking all the
costs of support provided to the Americans by their British
hosts every meal, gallon of gas, and load of laundry. In turn, the
Americans could have attempted to quantify the cost of the
intelligence provided via their GSM. Fortunately, this
bureaucratic, legalistic solution was not necessary as the Brits
treated the Yanks as their own.
The Allied reception of the GSM teams was not just a logistic
concern, but a force protection issue as well. The French initially
rejected the team that arrived to support them in Sarajevo, in the
face of severe space limitations. The team soon learned that
Sarajevo was not a good place to be homeless. In the words of the
GSM Task Force (TF GSM) Commander:
We...ended up stranding a team in Sarajevo without a life
support sponsor for several days. What made this particularly
distressing was that Sarajevo was not a safe place. During our
tenure, sniping incidents were almost a daily occurrence and on one
occasion GSM soldiers...were in a vehicle hit by shrapnel while
driving to the Sarajevo airport.
An additional factor in the background of all dealings with our
Allies was the impending NATO selection of a ground surveillance
system. The French entrant in the competition is the Horizon, an
MTI radar which lacks Joint STARS' synthetic aperture radar (SAR)
capability. The Italians have a comparable heliborne platform
called CRESO. The British Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR) is on
the drawing board, with a 2001 projected service date.3 With two of
these competitors supported by GSMs, tactical considerations
potentially conflicted with national-level military and economic
agendas. A final hurdle that the United States stumbled over on this
deployment was the foreign release of Joint STARS-produced
intelligence. Our joint doctrine calls for two categories of shared
Level 1, which can be shown to but not retained by
coalition and United Nations (U.N.) forces.
Level 2, which has been properly cleared for release to
coalition and U.N. forces.4
It further states, The methodology for exchanging
intelligence should be conceived and exercised well before
Early verbal guidance from the Joint STARS Squadron to the GSM
crews was consistent with Level 1: they could permit their NATO
partners to view data on their screens, but were prohibited from
providing hard copies, which reduced the utility of the product.
The original written guidance in December 1995, promulgated by the
U.S. Air Force's Disclosure Policy Branch, was ambiguous.6 EUCOM did
not publish definitive guidance until mid-February, a month and a
half after initial operating capability was declared.7 In the
absence of such guidance, elements at British, French, and
multinational headquarters had to make their own, localized
decisions on releasability.
In any coalition undertaking, coordination is more complicated and
time-consuming. In this instance, NATO, Supreme Headquarters Allied
Powers Europe, EUCOM, U.S. Air Forces Europe (USAFE), and USAREUR
were involved in planning for the deployment, not to mention the HQ
at each GSM site.
We learned many lessons for multinational operations. Among them
@BULLET = Task organization should be established at the HQ which
controls the military elements of both nations. The arrival of a
system should not be a surprise to the recipient. The product must
be validated within the intelligence framework at each supported
- Logistics arrangements should be agreed upon in advance.
Strive for a relationship that approximates our own concept of
attachment for logistical support. With this goal in mind, a U.S.
element should be as self-sufficient as possible, and arrive
prepared to initially self-sustain in an immature operational area
or when coordination for support has not been locked in.
- GSM crews serve as subject matter experts and liaison
officers (LNOs) point men for the system.
- Attachments must be sensitive to other factors which may
impact on Allied receptiveness to their intelligence support.
- Foreign disclosure guidance should be established and
disseminated prior to deployment.
- Planning for coalition operations is inherently more
complicated and time-consuming.
Joint STARS Collection Management A Decentralized Process
Tasking the aircraft occurs in two modes, not unlike preplanned and
immediate calls for close air support. In the latter mode, the GSM
crews transmit Radar Service Requests (RSRs) directly to the
aircraft. (Although slave sites communicated with the aircraft via
the master site, this was merely a relay, with no processing of the
request.) In Bosnia, few targets could be identified far enough in
advance for inclusion in the Air Tasking Order. More often, Joint
STARS would be cross-cued via the supported unit's S2.
When these requests reached the aircraft, they were managed by the
Airborne Target Surveillance Supervisor, an Army senior
noncommissioned officer, and the Airborne Surveillance Officer, an
Air Force officer. But they usually dealt with rather cryptic RSRs
without knowing the context of many of the requests they were
servicing. This was somewhat disconcerting to the air crew, the
Combined Air Operations Center, who perceived themselves as the
clearing house for all requests, and various entities who sought to
document the contributions of the system.
This decentralized collection management, however, is consistent
with our doctrine, which advocates broadcast intelligence to
facilitate command, control, communications, computers, and
intelligence for the warrior. In essence, the Joint STARS downlink
is a form of broadcast intelligence in that the vast quantity of
data continuously provided in the MTI mode overwhelms any one
element's ability to digest it all. However, it does allow an
individual GSM to focus on specific named areas of interest. If the
supported commander gets a timely response to his priority
intelligence requirements, that is success, even if the air crew or
a higher HQ collection management cell is oblivious to the success.
If the information warrants, it can be passed to other users or
fused into an all-source product that results in a more complete
picture of the battlefield.
Freedom to Maneuver (More Accurately, Freedom to
While the skies above the former Yugoslavia would intuitively seem
a permissive flight environment, with air supremacy and only
minimal risk of engagement from ground weapons, the Joint STARS
squadron's use of airspace was significantly restricted. This
hampered their efforts to overcome the limitations of the rugged
terrain. Even over Hungary (which provided access to substantial
ground facilities, airfields, and LOCs), safety concerns for
civilian air traffic routes constrained the airspace.
Unless we return to the desert (a flat one at that), we will
confront radar shadowing by both natural and man-made objects in
any future contingency. Flexibility in orbit selection and
adjustment, based on a sound risk assessment and early planning,
will lessen this obstacle by permitting the sensors to look down at
terrain features rather than across them.
Synchronizing Operations and Intelligence
One of the seven basic principles of intelligence espoused in our
joint doctrine is that we must synchronize intelligence with
operations. Our military intelligence doctrine more specifically
prescribes that our intelligence analysis is best done in the
context of understanding the relative friendly-adversary
situation. 10 In the initial stages of Operation JOINT ENDEAVOR, the
flow of the IFOR into the theater was of great concern. For S2s,
factional reaction or potential interdiction of those movements was
of obvious interest. Unfortunately, the Joint STARS mission
planning cell and air crews had poor visibility on friendly
dispositions, plans, and movements.
Since battlefield management is one of the major advertised
capabilities of Joint STARS,11 we need to integrate operators into
the Joint STARS planning team. For this deployment, the integration
could have taken the form of LNOs assigned to the JTF 4500 mission
planning cell at Rhein Main to provide insight into planned
friendly activities and assess changes in the friendly situation
during mission execution.
Force Structure Implications
The doctrinal size of a GSM team comprises two shift leaders, four operators (military
operational specialty 96H), and a maintainer (MOS 33T).12 The actual size of the deployed
teams for Operation JOINT ENDEAVOR, including the contractors, LNOs and supervisors,
ranged from 9 to 15. That operational
complement of six was designed to support 24-hour operations. For this mission, with two
aircraft available, data flowed less than 12 hours daily, yet the teams were stretched to the limit.
In addition to the time spent at the console, these teams must also conduct their personal
hygiene, system maintenance, and pre- and post-mission analysis (including extensive replay and
manipulation of data). They must also perform their fair share of guard duty and other details.
The JOINT ENDEAVOR crews accomplished this for 56 consecutive days without a day off. In
total, the operation lasted three months.
The projected fleet of E-8 Joint STARS aircraft will number as many as nineteen,
depending on budget decisions. This means that sustained, 24-hour data flow is on the horizon.
This will overtax our crews as currently comprised, degrading their performance.
The days of the GSM company are numbered according to the modified table of organization
and equipment (MTOE)
due to be implemented in September 1996. It will delete B Company from the Operations
Battalion of corps
military intelligence (MI) brigades. During JOINT ENDEAVOR, company commanders from
both Fort Bragg and Fort
Hood were gainfully employed supervising the employment and sustainment of the dozen teams
at widely separated
locations. Had this deployment occurred a year later, after the MTOE change, the GSM
deployment could not have
happened, at least not in the fashion executed by TF GSM. Downsizing notwithstanding, this
role for the company
HQ, while deployed, reinforces what we already knew about the company's role in training at the
The GSM company is essential for command and control as well as logistical support.
Looking ahead, our force structure experts should carefully consider the manning and skill
requirements for the
impending Common Ground Station (CGS). We learned that the GSM crews were not just
system operators, but were
expected to interpret their data and synthesize it into the known intelligence situation. This
be magnified by the addition of unmanned aerial vehicles, signals intelligence, aviation,
intelligence, and secondary imagery on the CGS. The Army Intelligence Center advertises the
capabilities for the CGS:
This impressive access to intelligence cries for an information manager who is part system
expert, part analyst, and part collection manager. The information manager should be trained and
employed on the battlefield by the MI brigade at corps level, and by the MI battalion at division.
The abundance of information carries with it the risk that it will not be massaged into
intelligence, and this incredible technology will fail to deliver to the commander a coherent,
tactically useful product. As we evolve toward Intel XXI, we must be mindful that
the intelligence task present is just as dependent on our expertise as it is on emerging
technologies. The right combination of staffing, training, and equipment will result in our goal
of helping the commander to understand the impact of what is being presented and use that
understanding to make knowledge-based decisions.
This operation also suggests reassessing the composition of the mission planning cell
within the Joint STARS squadron. The majority of this cell is comprised of air crew members
who are not flying, on a rotational basis. Doctrinally, 3 to 5 members of a 21-person crew are
Army.15 A small, permanent intelligence cell had no Army representation and was augmented
by two Army analysts from the USAREUR Combat Intelligence Readiness Facility.
While the Air Force is likely to continue to outnumber the Army on the air crew, we need a
permanent Army presence in the intelligence cell, in the form of three to five 96B analysts. This
modification will better equip the mission planning cell to provide accurate mission briefs. In
this contingency, despite the wings on the collector, the collection targets were almost
exclusively ground targets.
- Situation development.
- Battle management.
- Force protection.
- Limited battle damage assessment and target damage assessment.
- Operations planning.
Digesting the Data
Perhaps the biggest challenge to effective use of the system was data overload: the
inability to distinguish significant MTIs from the voluminous data stream. From the first training
mission, it became apparent that the screen would quickly fill with MTIs, making it difficult to
determine those of military significance. As the comparison of DESERT STORM and JOINT
ENDEAVOR revealed, the classic mass formations of armored vehicles moving
across uncluttered terrain simply did not exist.
Questions posed to the system had to be more specific. Use of Joint STARS confirmed or
denied movement in towns thought deserted. It monitored suspected mass burial sites, often in
isolated areas where any movement in the dead of winter was suspect.16 Recalling that General
Joulwan saw Joint STARS as the cornerstone of peace treaty compliance, the JTF 4500
Commander had each ZOS digitized so that they were readily available on every GSM
monitor as well as aboard the aircraft. An effort is ongoing to apply automation to the process to
help sort the wheat from the chaff.
Lieutenant Colonel David Anhalt of JTF 4500 is developing software enhancements that
would use automation to monitor traffic at selected points.17 Over time, traffic patterns can be
discerned; deviations from historical averages will alert analysts to unusual activity.18
Unfortunately, this capability was not available in time to impact on JOINT ENDEAVOR,
though it holds great promise for future missions. One capability that is wedded to conventional
warfare is Joint STARS' ability to distinguish between wheeled and tracked vehicles. Using
differential Doppler, an algorithm detects the proximity of radar reflective surfaces moving at
different speeds (like a track on a tank) and marks the MTI as a track. In Bosnia, this
resulted in many more false icons than accurate ones. For example, two vehicles that pass in
opposite directions on a highway provide the requisite radar returns to generate a track symbol.
In this environment, we would have been well served to turn the capability off and remove the
Despite the aggressive efforts of all elements of JTF 4500 and their supported S2s, the raw
volume of hard intelligence provided to commanders was not impressive, certainly not in
comparison to DESERT STORM. For GSM operators living in austere conditions and
interacting with their supported units daily, this was a hard pill to swallow. But the real measure
of success was not directly proportional to the number of hard reports rendered.
Success or Failure?
At the tactical level, it would be difficult to justify the expense of this sophisticated system
and its 450-person squadron. At the operational level, and not readily apparent to these
beleaguered soldiers, there was a more significant contribution. We must keep in mind the
ultimate goal of the commander: enforcement of the Dayton Treaty. If selected
violations could be documented, IFOR would benefit from the deterrent effect of the factions'
knowledge that they were under observation. General Joulwan strove to present an aura of
omniscience. That the aircraft did not have 24 hour coverage was not critical complete coverage
was not required. The use of Joint STARS in conventional warfare may have a chilling effect on
enemy commanders because their desire to achieve mass and mobility will be counterpoised by
the certainty that such formations will be immediately detected in all conditions of light and
weather. So too will a potential Bosnian combatant think twice about traversing a forbidden area
if he thinks that someone is observing him.
Joint STARS' recording capability also alleviates the requirement to catch him in the act.
An MTI history can be replayed to track a suspected mover, identifying his origin, his
destination, and his rate and route of movement. The Joint STARS' SAR was used to verify the
existence of equipment collection sites, define to a limited extent the contents of those sites, and
track changes over time.
In the Cold War era, intelligence professionals constantly sought to distinguish capabilities
from intentions. In the Post-Cold War era, Operation JOINT ENDEAVOR suggests that we
must now understand the difference between perception and reality. Intelligence has become a
force multiplier, not only in allowing the commander to effectively employ his assets to parry
the enemy, but now also serves an important deterrent role.
If our goal is to provide perfect intelligence, SASO will give us perfect frustration. Even the
term enemy has become outdated in the context of rival ethnic groups in a region grasping for
peace. But if Joint STARS or any system can contribute to preventing hostilities, it has
accomplished the mission. The challenge for intelligence professionals is to learn the dissimilar
lessons of both Operations DESERT STORM and JOINT ENDEAVOR. They must understand
that their commander's role may be equal parts political and military, and that the ultimate
consumer of their intelligence may well be a potential belligerent that the commander
strives to keep in check. By synthesizing and moving beyond the experiences of these two
contingencies, we will be better prepared to provide intelligence for the next.
Lieutenant Colonel Collin A. Agee is the Deputy Commander of the 525th
MI Brigade (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. During the early stages of Operation
JOINT ENDEAVOR, he was the 525th MI Brigade S3, serving as an augmentee to USAREUR.
He has a bachelor of arts degree in National Security and Public Affairs from West Point and a
Masters of Military Arts and Sciences from the School of Advanced Military Studies.
Readers can reach the author at (910) 396-3209/6084, DSN 236-3209/6084, and via E-mail at