On Jan. 14, 1991, the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (now referred to as JSTARS, but at that time stressed as the "Joint" STARS) had its first operational mission as part of Operation Desert Shield in the Persian Gulf.

The air offensive was scheduled to begin two days later, and the U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, was desperate for targeting information. Up to this time, the Army lacked a long range, near all-weather, night and day intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or ISR, and targeting capability. JSTARS was meant to fill that gap.

The JSTARS was comprised of an E-8 platform and several ground station modules, or GSMs. It could provide wide-area surveillance through a moving target indicator, also known as an MTI, and two- or three-dimensional imaging through synthetic aperture radar, or SAR.

Both the Army and Air Force had parallel development programs for similar systems in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, however, Congress ordered that the two programs be integrated into a single system and a joint program office was established.

As a joint program, both Army and Air Force operators flew onboard the aircraft. Although they looked at the same real-time radar data, each had a different perspective of what it meant and where it would be most useful. Air Force operators looked for immediate targeting data for attack aircraft and could track moving targets in real time. Army operators manipulated the data differently, especially in the GSMs, to look at changes through time to predict enemy ground movements.

In September 1990, JSTARS conducted a successful Operational Fielding (Feasibility) Demonstration, or OFD, for both American and allied personnel in Europe. It was tasked with locating and targeting three 25-vehicle convoys moving at night.

JSTARS easily passed the test. Shortly thereafter, a team of Army and Air Force program and system managers traveled to Saudi Arabia to brief the system capabilities and status to Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the CENTCOM commander. Earlier in the summer, Schwarzkopf had requested then cancelled JSTARS deployment to Southwest Asia because the system was still in its testing phase and its maturity for use in wartime was in question. By the December briefing, however, he had reconsidered and immediately requested deployment of the system to be operational by Jan. 15, 1991.

In less than a month, the Army needed to form a unit, standardize all the equipment, identify and train personnel, arrange for the shipment of the GSMs, and develop a concept of operations for how the system would be employed in theater. At this time, the Army had no policy or procedures for integrating developmental systems into a theater of operations. No provisions existed for authorizations to form a provisional unit.

The commanding general at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center, Maj. Gen. Paul Menoher, personally worked with the Department of Army staff to get a provisional JSTARS detachment manned, equipped and trained in time for deployment. The whole process was contrary to policy and an exception to standing procedures.

Col. Martin Kleiner, the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command systems manager for JSTARS, formed the JSTARS Operational Detachment One and recruited and trained personnel from the Intelligence Center to operate the GSMs. The Air Force established its own 4411th JSTARS Squadron. Preparation time was so compressed that integrated training with Air Force and Army personnel was still ongoing during the 17-hour flight to Saudi Arabia.

By Jan. 12, two E-8A aircraft and five GSMs (a sixth came later) arrived in Saudi Arabia. Two days later, JSTARS was flying its first mission. Kleiner remembered that first mission as a learning experience: "The aircraft was airborne, it was down-linking radar and the ground stations were receiving it. Quite frankly, we had no idea what we were looking at. Our application of the system was pretty much being developed on the fly. "This was a revolutionary capability. It wasn't simple evolution moving from one capability to incrementally something better. No matter how much you test or how much you postulate, until you actually get into an operational environment, you don't know what you are going to see."

The first mission began as an engineering test flight to determine what the system could produce but quickly became an eight-hour intelligence-gathering mission. Although initial plans called for the system to be used exclusively for targeting, JSTARS eventually was used to locate and track enemy units, especially those dug in along the Iraq and Kuwait borders with Saudi Arabia. Throughout the course of Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm, JSTARS flew 49 consecutive, successful missions, mostly at night, tracking and targeting fixed and mobile enemy forces and Scud missile launchers for coalition forces.

JSTARS proved critical during the first ground engagement near Khafji in Saudi Arabia, which the Iraqis had attacked on Jan. 29. JSTARS was able to identify the location of Iraqi troops, when and where they were moving, and confirm the absence of any reinforcements en route. This convinced coalition ground commanders that the engagement was not part of a much larger battle and allowed them to focus their assets accordingly and not disrupt the established campaign plan. JSTARS also detected Iraqi efforts to resupply its troops, and U.S. attack aircraft destroyed 70 percent of the vehicles and dispersed the rest.

After the war, Kleiner stated unequivocally that the JSTARS system contributed significantly to the war effort in the first Gulf War. Both the Army and Air Force were in agreement that the system proved its worth. Brig. Gen. John Stewart, the G2 for Army Central Command, stated, "The JSTARS was the single most valuable intelligence and targeting collection system in Desert Storm. … JSTARS was instrumental in making every 'key read' during the ground war." Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak predicted, "We will not ever again want to fight without a JSTARS kind of system."
Perhaps the only complaint about JSTARS during the campaign was not enough were present in theater to satisfy all requirements. Although initially planned for dedicated support to the corps, the two available systems had to adopt a larger theater support concept.

In hindsight, the battlefield in Kuwait and Iraq was certainly ideal for employment of the system: the largely armored enemy was moving in mass formations over clear and uniform terrain with little civilian presence. In addition, the coalition enjoyed air supremacy, which led to its capability to immediately destroy JSTARS-identified targets. Indeed, the next employment of JSTARS as part of the peacekeeping Operation Joint Endeavor in the more mountainous Bosnian terrain would prove to be much more challenging.

Still, in the years following the first Gulf War, JSTARS enjoyed unmitigated support and Congress increased its funding. JSTARS not only proved itself a critical targeting and intelligence asset. From the beginning it represented something even bigger. Maj. Gen. Robert Noonan, commander of U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command, captured that sentiment in 1999 when he said, "This integration of Army operations and intelligence Soldiers with Air Force targeteers and battle management officers represents the cutting edge of joint warfighting."

Interestingly, the JSTARS had been used operationally in two theaters before the first production aircraft was even delivered in 1996. The final, 17th, aircraft was not delivered until 2005. The system has conducted hundreds of missions in support of Operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and New Dawn.

By 2014, funding issues were preventing the Air Force from replacing the fleet, but it was projected to remain in service until nearly 2030, albeit with updated sensors and electronic equipment.