Joint STARS in the Balkans

by Captain Kristin M. Baker

On 27 December 1995, the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) became fully operational in the Balkans. Our deployment was a series of planes, trains, convoys, and one ferry ride across the Rhein River. The soldiers became system experts and are fully trained on air- and rail-loading, and convoy procedures. They were tested on their operator skills and trouble-shooting skills, and they did an outstanding job integrating the Ground Station Module (GSM) into operations at every level from brigade through division and providing support to a multinational peacekeeping force. We had an opportunity over the next three months to review the data the Joint STARS GSM could provide and analyze its capabilities given the order of battle, operating environment data, and tactics used by the former warring factions. This article discusses some of the key operational lessons learned and tasking techniques we developed.

The Environment

First, I would like to clarify the environment in which we operated. The terrain in Bosnia-Herzegovina presents a challenge to all of our intelligence collection systems. It is primarily mountainous, making signals and imagery collection difficult. The three major landforms in the Task Force Eagle area of responsibility are the Sava river valley (also known as the Posavina Corridor), the mountainous highlands, and the narrow river valleys. The lowland south of the Sava River consists of small dissected plateaus. As you move south toward Tuzla, you encounter the foothills of the central highlands. Hills rise with elevations averaging 400 to 800 meters. The Bosna, Spreca, and Jala river valleys are narrow and support extensive agriculture. These river valleys lay within linear depressions called polje and are ideal for assembly areas, helicopter landing zones, and low-level drop zones. The central highlands region from Tuzla to Sarajevo consists of mountain ranges heavily dissected by narrow streams and river valleys.

Collection Challenges

The Joint STARS' capability to track moving target indicators (MTIs) in this area of responsibility (AOR) is hindered by this type of terrain. Movement is channeled into the few trafficable roads; however, the roads wind in and out of the mountain ranges leaving them radar shadowed in many places. Radar shadowing is to a radar system what terrain masking is to an electro-optical (visual) system. Radar-shadowed areas are ones where the radar cannot see due to the terrain and vegetation blocking its view. For example, we were able to track a convoy at its start point, but it was difficult to track it all the way to its destination as it moved into and out of radar-shadowed areas along its route. If the convoy maintains a steady rate of movement, the operator may be able to compensate for the radar shadow, predict when it would come out of that shadow, and pick the convoy up again. This is not an easy task and often it is easy to lose the track if the convoy's next appearance is in the middle of a highly congested area. Another factor contributing to the challenge of tracking convoys is that there are few trafficable routes and these routes are used extensively by both the military and faction forces and civilians. We do not have the ability to distinguish between the two. The roads are narrow and traffic that appears to be a convoy may actually be two-way traffic passing at a point on the route or just route congestion. In addition, the members of the former warring factions were more than likely traveling by bus rather than by military vehicle.
Combat in the AOR prior to the Dayton Peace Accord generally involved attacks by battalion-sized groupings of light infantry and tank companies. They were supported by heavy direct and indirect fires from light- and medium-caliber antiaircraft artillery, automatic cannon, and antitank weapons. Irregular forces cooperated directly or indirectly with regular forces and were armed primarily with small arms or infantry support weapons.
Army soldiers in the military occupational specialty 96H operate the GSM. It is capable of receiving electronic intelligence information at the Secret level via a Commander's Tactical Terminal (CTT) and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) imagery via a hardwire link into the UAV Ground Control Station. These capabilities normally give us a very robust internal cross-cueing capability. In this environment, however, we could not rely on the CTT due to both the environment and security issues; also the UAV ground station was not in theater with the GSM during most of our mission.
The fact that the factions abided by the Dayton Peace Accord posed yet another challenge to Joint STARS collection. They did not employ their heavy weapons systems using definitive, targetable formations (such as echelon left and wedge). There were reports of a single tank at a given grid location, a group of towed mortars at a collection point, or more commonly, reports of seven soldiers occupying a bunker along the zone of separation (ZOS). We received this type of reporting from helicopter pilot debriefs, by reviewing the helicopter gunship tapes, and by reviewing reports from soldiers on the ground. We could not always identify and track the movement of this equipment using the Joint STARS MTI, due to the small number moving at any time and their methods of movement.
The formerly warring factions had a number of military and paramilitary elements. These include
Using the Joint STARS MTI, we would be able to detect the initiation of hostilities by any of the former warring factions, if they had decided to revert to their pre-Dayton Accord tactics. Since they abided by the agreement during our deployment, we primarily focused on confirming the locations of weapon storage and cantonment areas, garrison locations, and any significant movement of vehicles or equipment in the area of operations.
When we arrived in theater, the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) was not fully operational. As a result, our Joint Operations Center (JOC) located in Rhein Main Air Base, Germany, initially managed all Joint STARS tasking from the multinational divisions. The communications architecture was still in its infancy and it was difficult to contact the JOC to provide the taskings. The JOC also assumed the burden of prioritizing taskings, although they were not formally part of the theater intelligence cycle.
The GSMs that were within line of sight (LOS) of the aircraft were capable of sending dynamic tasking requests to the aircraft during the mission over a secure datalink antenna. Those GSMs not located within LOS received retransmitted data over a "receive-only" satellite communications (SATCOM) link and could not send dynamic taskings. The SATCOM sites had to send all their preplanned taskings to the JOC. If a target came up during the mission that required better coverage, the site officer-in-charge would contact the JOC and send the tasking through them to the aircraft. There were quite a few "growing pains" with this method of dynamic retasking.
Once the ARRC was operational, a captain from the JOC took over the Joint STARS liaison officer role in Sarajevo. As a team, the liaison officers at the British, French, 1st Brigade, 2d Brigade, Task Force Eagle Main, and ARRC sites worked with their respective collection managers and G2s through several tasking procedures before finding one that worked. The ARRC LNO determined each of the division's named areas of interest (NAIs) for Joint STARS collection, and prioritized them in a matrix. He forwarded this matrix to the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) which, in turn, added the Air Force priorities, and sent them as a formal tasking to the JOC back at Rhein Main Air Base. Each of the multinational divisions (MND) had a different focus for the Joint STARS missions and, as a result, the aircraft flew at different times over different areas throughout the deployment area to satisfy all user requirements. Because there were only two aircraft in theater, we could not satisfy each MND's requirements simultaneously and had to compromise. The schedule that the ARRC LNO arranged was based on each MND's predicted time they would have the greatest need for Joint STARS coverage based on the former warring faction's activity in their sector.


Clearly the Joint STARS system had applications in this theater unlike those it had during Operations DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM. Operation JOINT ENDEAVOR does not have an ominous enemy threat that fired SCUD missiles and rolled tanks across the battlefield. Here, there was no standard conventional enemy. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, we watched the ZOS and the known and suspected weapons systems collection facilities for movement. We were able to report each day that there were no gross violations of the Dayton Peace Accord. The former warring factions moved equipment in the country, but not in hostile formations.
We spent a great deal of time researching the benefit of monitoring traffic rates on the major routes in the theater to determine average movement of traffic. We discovered that it would be beneficial to have a capability to automate the counting of movers through a given NAI. As a joint Army-Air Force task force, we learned a great deal about how to task Joint STARS in a multinational environment. This is knowledge we have captured in our after-action review and will apply it to future deployments of the Joint STARS GSM via updates to internal standard operating procedures, doctrine, and field manuals distributed throughout the intelligence community.
Captain Baker graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1990 with a bachelor of science degree in Human Factors Engineering. She is currently the Assistant Plans Officer in G2 Plans, III Corps and was recently the commander of Bravo Company, 303d Military Intelligence (MI) Battalion, 504th MI Brigade. Readers can reach her at (817) 287-6813, DSN 737-6813, and via E-mail at [email protected]