The 16th Airborne Command and Control Squadron (ACCS) – a part of the US Air Force’s (USAF’s) 461st Air Control Wing (ACW) – marked a major milestone on September 8, when the unit flew its final local sortie with the Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) from Robins Air Force Base (AFB), Georgia.
Having flown the JSTARS operationally for the last 27 years, the 16th ACCS is now preparing for its upcoming inactivation as the USAF continues to draw down its ageing E-8C fleet, which entered Air Force service in 1991. The squadron’s final local E-8C sortie comes as the USAF looks to divest its first four JSTARS aircraft during Fiscal Year 2022 (FY22). These initial aircraft were scheduled to be withdrawn from service by September 2022.
Lt Col Joseph Maruska, commander of the 16th ACCS and pilot of the E-8C that carried out the unit’s final local sortie under the historic ‘Phenom 16’ callsign, said: “It has been an honour leading a squadron with such an outstanding history of excellence throughout so many of our nation’s conflicts dating back to World War Two. The men and women who have served in the 16th have a lot to be proud of. This was a big day for our squadron and for Team JSTARS.
“We could not have done it without the support of Team JSTARS maintenance, our sister squadrons, base support agencies and our teammates in the 116th Air Control Wing,” he added.
In line with this current schedule, the 16th ACCS will be officially inactivated on February 16, 2023, which will mark the first of several major milestones in the divestment of the USAF’s JSTARS fleet. The USAF states that the move will ultimately make way for the bedding down of four new missions at Robins AFB that will align with the “future Air Force design to prepare for near-peer threats.”
While there are no plans to reduce the number of personnel at Robins AFB as a result of this mission transformation effort, the base will see major changes. For instance, Guardsmen assigned to the Georgia Air National Guard’s (ANG’s) 116th ACW will be retrained in roles specific to the Battle Management Command and Control (C2) mission and in using the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) – a family of systems that will be used to replace the E-8C platform.
Meanwhile, active-duty airmen serving with the 461st ACW will either be repurposed for these new missions or redeployed to other locations. Personnel from required career fields will be assigned to Robins AFB to fill any remaining positions in support of these new mission sets. As part of these changes, a new active-duty Bombardier E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) squadron will be one of the new units that are set to take up residence at Robins AFB. These E-11As would be operated as a detachment of the 319th Reconnaissance Wing (RW) at Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota.
Since 1991, the USAF has operated Northrop Grumman's E-8C JSTARS – an extensively modified fleet of Boeing 707-300s – in the airborne ground surveillance, battle management and C2 role, where it has supported a host of US and NATO military operations across Europe and the Middle East. In November 2019, the USAF concluded the platform’s 18-year-long continuous deployment in the Middle East, surmising that ‘Team JSTARS’ crews had racked up 114,426 combat flying hours across 10,938 sorties in support of US Central Command (CENTCOM) operations in the region.