USAF calls time on E-8C JSTARS Middle East ops

US Air Force calls time on Middle East operations for the E-8C Joint STARS after 18 years of operating in the region - the second longest deployment in the air arm's history.

The US Air Force (USAF) has called time on the deployment of its Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) airborne ground intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), battle management command and control aircraft. The deployment started in November 2001 in the US Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility.

During the E-8’s near two-decade deployment crews racked up 114,426 combat flying hours across 10,938 sorties in support of almost every CENTCOM operation in the region. E-8Cs would be airborne daily, flying up to 11-hour sorties, according to a news release from Robins AFB, Georgia.

E-8C Joint STARS Returns [USAF]
An E-8C Joint STARS aircraft returns to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, at sunset following a combat mission in September 2016. USAF/Tech. Sgt. Carlos Trevino

The Joint STARS entered operational service with the USAF in 1991 and has spent more than half of its current operational career assisting CENTCOM. The last deployed aircraft arrived back at Robins AFB from its forward base at Al Udeid, Qatar, on October 1. However, news did not surface about the end of its mission until the end of the month.

The platform's time in the region encouraged the USAF to establish 'Team JSTARS' - the air arm's first total force initiative wing - based at Robins AFB. The wing consists of Air Combat Command's (AAC) 461st Air Control Wing (ACW) and the Georgia Air National Guard's (ANG) 116th ACW. The US Army also has a presence in 'Team JSTARS' in the form of its Intelligence and Security Command's 138th Military Intelligence Company.

Brig Gen Thomas Grabowski, commander of Georgia ANG, said: “[The] flawless deployment of the Joint STARS weapon system over nearly two decades is a textbook example of total force integration and joint force execution done properly... They have set the gold standard in TFI and will continue to lead the way as they restructure to the new Advanced Battle Management System supporting the air force we need."

An E-8C Joint STARS on the ramp at Robins AFB, prior to being relocated to Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, in the wake of Hurricane Dorian in September 2019. USAF/1st Lt Dustin Cole

The last aircraft to depart Al Udeid was piloted by Col Konata Crumbly, commander of the 166th ACW, who upon leaving the base said: "Looking out the window of the flight deck and seeing Al Udeid drifting into the distance for the last time after so many years was a momentous occasion. 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."

As good as the E-8 is, in recent years the air arm has become rather disenchanted with the platform, especially when it concerns the controversial Joint STARS Recap programme - which would have seen the E-8C replaced with a smaller, more efficient aircraft by 2022, similar to the Royal Air Force's Raytheon Sentinel R1 aircraft.

However, the recap has failed over concerns of survivability against advanced Russian and Chinese air defence systems. The Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) will likely use unmanned and space-based assets, but this is seen as a very ambitious project given the timeline needed to meet E-8 replacement needs.

In the meantime, the USAF has been barred from retiring the E-8 and US FY2019 defence budget outlines that the Joint STARS will continue to serve the USAF operationally until the mid-2020s.