The Air Force’s E-8C JSTARS, or Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, is one of its most vital intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.
The JSTARS and its airmen has flown to support the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to defeat the Islamic State, and other operations — virtually every mission in the Middle East since 2012.
And on Sept. 30, the JSTARS surpassed a major milestone: 113,337 combat hours in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility. That’s the equivalent of nearly 13 years of nonstop flying, to carry out airborne command and control to assist with force protection, defensive operations, overwatch and combat search and rescue.
“ISR is important to the intelligent preparation of the environment where U.S. and coalition forces operate every day,” Lt. Col. Vida Roeder, commander of the 7th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron that flies the JSTARS at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, said in an Oct. 9 release. “This vital information provides the required situational awareness to both flying platforms and ground troops.”
Maj. Michael Gray, the squadron’s director of operations, said in the U.S. Air Forces Central Command release that the 7th currently flies the most hours of any squadron at Al Udeid.
“I am proud of my crews that came out here, some of them on their first combat deployment, flying every other day, putting up about 105 combat missions in the past four months,” Gray said. “They are a big piece of why we have excelled out here.”
Trying to keep the JSTARS planes — which were converted from 1960s-era Boeing 707s that already had tens of thousands of flight hours — up and running in the Middle East is a constant challenge for its maintenance crews, AFCENT said. The maintenance team consists of active-duty airmen, Georgia Air National Guardsmen, and a handful of reservists.
“It is hard to keep a jet running when you have the heat that you have here,” said Col. Konata Crumbly, the commander of the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. “The aircraft are older, but [the airmen] are making them fly better. Not only did they uphold the standard, they exceeded the standard.”
JSTARS from Al Udeid passed 100,000 combat flying hours in support of U.S. Central Command in 2015.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.