USAF to start retiring Joint STARS fleet this year

US Air Force (USAF) authorisation has been granted for Air Combat Command (ACC) and the Georgia Air National Guard (ANG) to begin divesting its Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) fleet, beginning with four aircraft in FY22.

The Public Affairs Office of Robins Air Force Base (AFB), which announced the decision on December 21, said the divestment will make way for the bedding-down of four new missions that align better with the USAF design to prepare for near-peer threats. There is no plan to reduce manpower at Robins as a result of this mission transformation effort.

E-8C Joint STARS [Northrop Grumman]
The USAF is set to start retiring its ageing fleet of Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint STARS airborne battle management aircraft this year, with four examples scheduled to be withdrawn from service by September 2022. Northrop Grumman

Guardsmen assigned to the Georgia ANG’s 116th Air Control Wing (ACW) will retrain to roles in a Battle Management Command and Control mission and an Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) family of systems at Robins AFB. Active-duty airmen from the 461st ACW will either be repurposed for the new missions or be redeployed to other locations. Personnel from required career fields will be assigned to Robins to fill any remaining positions in support of the new mission sets.

The movement of these missions is subject to the completion of an environmental planning effort, which is scheduled for completion early in FY23. For several years, there has been a lengthy debate over the fate of the JSTARS fleet and this decision finally begins the process of their removal from service, with the first four – a quarter of the 16-strong fleet – being withdrawn by September 2022.

An active-duty Bombardier E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) squadron will be among the new units that are scheduled to arrive at Robins as the Georgia base focuses on new mission sets. This type was latterly flown by the 430th Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron, operating from Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan until US and coalition forces pulled out as the Taliban took back control over the country in August 2021.

E-11A BACN departs Prince Sultan AB 03-01-22 [USAF/Senior Airman Jacob B Wrightsman]
This Bombardier E-11A BACN (serial 11-9355) departs Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia on January 3, 2022, to conduct a complex joint training exercise with combat aircraft from across US CENTCOM's area of responsibility. An active-duty E-11A detachment is planned to be stood up at Robins AFB, Georgia, as the base changes its focus from E-8C JSTARS operations to new mission sets over the coming years. USAF/Senior Airman Jacob B Wrightsman

At Robins, the E-11As would be operated as a detachment of the 319th Reconnaissance Wing at Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, which currently operates the Northrop Grumman RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for surveillance purposes.

The USAF has operated the JSTARS – a fleet of extensively modified Boeing 707-300s – operationally since 1991. Since then, the type has supported US military operations across Europe and the Middle East.

In November 2019, the air arm concluded the platform’s 18-year long continuous deployment in the Middle East, where ‘Team JSTARS’ crews racked up 114,426 combat flying hours across 10,938 sorties in support of US Central Command (CENTCOM) operations in the region. The deployment was the second longest in USAF history.