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Joint STARS hits 70,000-hour mark in AOR

09/28/2011 -- A squadron deployed from the 116th Air Control Wing at Robins Air Force Base, Ga., recently reached 70,000 flight hours in support of operations in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
The 7th Expeditionary Airborne Command and Control Squadron reached the milestone Sept. 25 in an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, or Joint STARS. To put it into perspective, the unit has flown an average of 19 hours each day since Sept. 11, 2001, or the equivalent of being airborne for eight years. This incredible pace has shown no signs of slowing down in the past three years either. The squadron took seven years to hit the 40,000 hour mark and only three to climb to 70,000.
The Air Force fleet of 17 Joint STARS has combined for more than 6,300 sorties, according to Lt. Col. Curt,
7th EACCS commander.
The squadron's mix of Georgia Air National Guard, active duty Air Force and Army aviation officers and enlisted personnel continuously provide troops on the ground with command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information.
"Every day as a squadron commander at a deployed location there is something new to learn," Curt said. "Being able to take care of nearly 150 people who are flying and fighting for the freedoms and interests of our country -- supporting the troops on the front lines to keep them safe -- makes me proud."
Joint STARS evolved from Army and Air Force programs to detect, locate and attack enemy armor at ranges beyond the forward area of ground troops. The first two developmental aircraft deployed in 1991 to Operation Desert Storm and in 1995 to Operation Joint Endeavor.
Operators onboard the modified Boeing 707-300 series commercial airframe use a 24-foot-long side-looking phased array antenna and computer subsystems to gather and display detailed battlefield information on ground forces. The antenna can cover an area larger than the state of Maryland and can detect targets from more than 155 kilometers away.
The information is then relayed in near real time to Army and Marine Corps common ground stations and to other ground command, control, communications, computers and intelligence centers.
"This system was originally meant to track tanks in a large-scale land battle and is now capable of supporting multiple small-units across a large area with live intelligence data and command and control capabilities that have significantly shortened the kill-chain since we began flying this mission in 2001," said Capt. Nathan,
7th EACCS Computer Systems Flight officer in charge. "New systems like the Predator and Reaper are amazing machines, but you're not going to know how or where to best use those assets without JSTARS providing the big picture of what is happening on the ground right now."
Despite the high operations tempo for this high-demand, low-density asset as it's called in Air Force circles, crew members find the mission rewarding.
"Joining a mission that's been full throttle for 10 years is a really unique experience," said Capt. Rhiannon, 7th EACCS air weapons officer, who has served two and a half years on the Joint STARS. "I get to draw on the expertise of people who have been doing this mission from the beginning, people who have served on two or three platforms and people with ground experience.
"I have friends with boots on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan," Rhiannon added. "It motivates me to think about them, their troops and everyone operating on the front lines."
Maintaining such a small fleet of aircraft with such a large mission can be challenging.
"The main challenge for maintenance would be the environment," said Senior Master Sgt. Keith, 7th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Unit maintenance superintendent. "Our maintainers are dealing with a harsh climate on one of the busiest, most potentially dangerous ramps in the theater."
The maintenance unit is blended, with a mix of highly experienced Air National Guard maintainers who have been involved with the Joint STARS contingency mission since the beginning, and active duty Airmen, according to the 25-year veteran.
Robinson said the payoff for maintainers is the feedback received from the aircrew on mission success.
"To know that the aircraft you helped put in the air provided critical support to the troops on the ground, makes you feel like you made a difference," Robinson said.