After 18 Years, JSTARS Surveillance Plane Is Coming Home from the Middle East

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An E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System returns at sunset from a combat mission Sept. 12, 2016, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Carlos J. Treviño)
An E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System returns at sunset from a combat mission Sept. 12, 2016, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Carlos J. Treviño)

The JSTARS watch in the Middle East has ended.

After 18 years of deployments, the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) left the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility last month, marking the aircraft's final mission to the region, according to a recent news release.

"Looking out the window of the flight deck and seeing Al Udeid [Air Base, Qatar] drifting into the distance for the last time after so many years was a momentous occasion," said Col. Konata Crumbly, 116th Air Control Wing commander and JSTARS aircraft commander.

"It is difficult to measure the kind of success our Team JSTARS airmen and soldiers achieved over the last 18 years; it can only be measured in lives not lost," he added.

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JSTARS aircraft have flown 10,938 sorties, "equaling 114,426.6 combat flying hours in support of nearly every CENTCOM operation including Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, Freedom Sentinel and Inherent Resolve," the release states.

Typical battlefield command-and-control missions average 11 hours per flight, officials said.

The aircraft began deploying in November 2001. Shortly after, service officials saw demand surge for the aircraft, which is capable of developing, detecting, locating and tracking moving targets on the ground.

As a result, the Air Force in 2002 assembled the first total force initiative wing, or "Team JSTARS" at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. The 16-aircraft fleet resides there.

The team is made up of the Georgia Air National Guard's 116th Air Control Wing, Air Combat Command's 461st ACW, and the 138th Military Intelligence Company, an active-duty unit under Army Intelligence and Security Command.

"The relationship between the Soldiers and airmen of Team JSTARS enabled unprecedented, timely support to CENTCOM maneuver commanders, undoubtedly saving countless American and coalition service members' lives," Maj. Nicholas Sikes, 138th MICO commander, said in the release. "Our support will continue as long as the nation and the joint force commanders need the capabilities we can provide."

The airborne command-and-control plane, a modified Boeing 707-300 series commercial airframe that can fly as high as 42,000 feet, is "extensively remanufactured and modified with the radar, communications, operations and control subsystems," including a prominent 27-foot bathtub-like radome under the fuselage. The radome "houses the 24-foot long, side-looking phased array antenna," according to the Air Force.

While the service had originally planned to buy 17 new aircraft in coming years, Air Force leaders officially put to bed its recapitalization effort in favor of the Advanced Battle Management System through the fiscal 2019 defense budget request. ABMS has been described as an elite system that will fuse intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensor data from around the world

The E-8 will still fly into the mid-2020s.

Though JSTARS has provided unmatched overwatch for years, the Air Force needs to capitalize on emerging technologies to do the job instead, then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in October 2017.

"Can we pull all that information to give a better picture of command and control, and be putting that on the ground instead of in the back of an airplane?" Wilson asked during a Center for Strategic & International Studies event in Washington, D.C.

She even pointed to a growing capability gap.

"They're very important to people on the ground to get air support where they need it, but they're only meeting 5% of the [combatant commander] requirement. They have to go back and refuel; there are only a limited number of airframes," she said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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