The E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft flew its final operational mission last week. It ended a three-decade career as the military’s “eye in the sky” in conflicts from Operation Desert Storm to the Ukraine war.

The departure is a stepping stone on the aircraft’s path toward retirement as the Air Force reshapes its inventory to fit the demands of modern combat.

“It’s bittersweet,” Col. Christopher Dunlap, chief of the 116th Air Control Wing, said in a statement released Monday. “I have been flying this mission with this aircraft since spring 2003. There have been many changes over the years.”

JSTARS is a modified Boeing 707 that uses a long sensor in the belly of the plane to track the movement of ground forces in a region and share that information with other aircraft and troops below. Combat units rely on the fleet to pinpoint potential targets and prevent friendly forces from straying into danger.

Its last mission departed from the Ramstein air base (Germany), the nerve center of US military operations throughout Europe and further south. The Air Force declined to answer where the sortie took place or what it consisted of.

The US Air Force's JSTARS conducts its final intelligence mission.

“The aircraft’s sensors provided valuable intelligence information, guiding strategic decisions on the ground and improving operational effectiveness,” the service said in the statement.

The fleet’s departure from military operations signals the end of an era in battlefield intelligence.

E-8Cs have flown in military operations from Desert Storm in 1991 to guarding Russian troops massed on the Ukraine border to Iraq and Afghanistan a decade later. They have also collaborated in non-war missions, such as transnational anti-drug raids.

The US Air Force's JSTARS conducts its final intelligence mission.US Airmen with the 116th Air Control Wing, Georgia Air National Guard, sign an engine from an E-8C Joint STARS for its final mission at Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany, Sept. twenty-one

“E-8C JSTARS has played a vital role in countless operations, supporting troops and safeguarding nations,” the Air Force said on Facebook.

The fleet, which initially had 16 jets, has been managed by two Air Force units: the active duty 461st Air Control Wing and the 116th Air Control Wing of the Georgia Air National Guard, both at Robins Base of the Air Force.

Together, they have flown more than 14,000 sorties since 2002, when they merged as the service’s first “mixed” wing, the service said. The 461st ACW recorded its last operational sortie in June.

Plans to reduce the JSTARS fleet have gradually come together in recent years.

The Air Force briefly launched an effort to request another aircraft to replace the JSTARS but abandoned that program in fiscal year 2019. After arguing with Congress over the fate of the fleet, the service began retiring the E-8Cs in February of 2022.

Instead of maintaining a vast inventory of aircraft built specifically for highly specialized missions, the Air Force now wants to use a network of satellites, aircraft sensors and ground-based radars to collect the same guidance and tracking data.

The service hopes this approach will allow it to be more resilient against potential attacks on its command and control enterprise, save money on aircraft maintenance and use its airmen more effectively.

According to the Air Force statement, two of the original 16 aircraft remain at Robins. The last JSTARS are scheduled to depart for the Air Force Retired Aircraft Graveyard at Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona, during the first week of November.

The US Air Force's JSTARS conducts its final intelligence mission.US Airmen with the 116th Air Control Wing, Georgia Air National Guard, pose in front of an E-8C Joint STARS for its final mission at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

Air Force spoke to Capt. Dustin Cole said pilots can continue using the plane for flight training until he formally retires.

As his core fleet dwindles, Robins has begun taking on new missions that the Air Force sees as more relevant in future wars.

Nine E-11A airborne communications relay aircraft will be based at the central Georgia facility, as well as a command and control squadron, a group focused on electromagnetic spectrum warfare and an office to manage Army acquisition. Areas of future communications technologies known as the Advanced Battle Management System.

Some Airmen are already working to open those units, while others are training to staff them.

“A wing that has a long history of excellence cannot be expected to sit idly by when there is so much work left to do,” Dunlap said in an emailed statement. “It’s not in our DNA.”

Rachel S. Cohen