The Defense Department is putting a new surveillance plane into service over Afghanistan, one capable of tracking vehicle movements on the ground even in bad weather. The system could be the key to tracking down fugitive terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
The ultra-sophisticated spy plane is a modified Boeing 707 known in military parlance as the E8C J-STARS, or Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.
It is an airborne battle management and command and control plane that carries out ground surveillance, detecting, tracking and ultimately coordinating attacks on ground forces, especially armored vehicles.
With its distinctive 12-meter long canoe-shaped radar housing under the forward fuselage, J-STARS was first used during the 1991 Gulf War to track mobile Iraqi forces, including tanks and Scud missiles.
But in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials make clear they will also use the capabilities of J-STARS to follow four-wheel-drive vehicles, like those believed to be used by Taleban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar and al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem is a top operations officer with the military's Joint Chiefs. He has confirmed the deployment of J-STARS and another surveillance aircraft known as Global Hawk to Afghanistan. But he declines to give much detail about their capabilities.
"Well, the deployment orders, in fact, have been released to deploy Global Hawk and J-STARS. The specific capabilities that they'll bring in this theater I won't specify," he said. "I will say that as a matter of public knowledge, that J-STARS brings a capability to track vehicles in all weather. That will be helpful when you're looking for trucks or SUV's, [4-wheel drive vehicles] or others that are moving around."
The U.S. Air Force says the radar system on board the J-STARS can cover a ground area of some 50,000 kilometers, detecting targets at ranges up to 250 kilometers from the aircraft. In addition to being able to detect, locate and track ground vehicles, the radar can also track helicopters and slow-moving fixed-wing aircraft.
J-STARS is also designed to provide targeting information directly to field commanders for attack operations.
According to the Air Force, the plane normally flies with a flight crew of four backed by a team of up to 18 Air Force and Army specialists.