ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. — In a couple of weeks, a group of young airmen from Robins will head to the Middle East to take on the responsibility of making sure U.S. troops come home alive.
A group of J-STARS airmen last week completed training for their first deployment. They will head to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, from which they will perform missions over Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere depending on the need.
The J-STARS, or Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System, flies the E-8C aircraft. The crew on board, which can be up to 34 airmen and Army personnel, analyzes radar data and relays the information about enemy movements to commanders on the ground.
Their mission is vital enough that in an era when the military is making broad cuts, it has asked for $100 million in the next fiscal year’s budget to begin an update of the decades old J-STARS fleet.
Three of the airmen making their first deployment spoke last week about the specialized training they have received over the past several weeks to prepare for the deployment. While they have trained for two years to learn their jobs, the deployment training consists of things such as first aid and donning gear to protect them from a chemical attack.
The airmen, 1st Lt. Alex Brant, Airman 1st Class Pablo Carrion and Airman 1st Class Christopher Parks, said they are excited about putting their skills to work when it counts the most.
“I’m anxious to get over there and see what it’s like,” said Parks, who like Carrion analyzes radar data. “We are looking forward to it.”
Brant is a weapons officer, and his job is to monitor other aircraft in the area and make sure their paths don’t cross. A good bit of the deployment training, he said, is learning the rules of the airspace, including the altitudes at which they can fly, which varies no matter where they go in the world.
“A lot of it is making sure we have the rules down for safety and that we have all of the information we need to know,” he said.
They all said they have no concerns about flying in the aging planes.
“The pilots we have here are some of the best pilots I’ve ever met,” Brant said. “I’ve never had a moment when I’ve been on the jet when I’ve not felt safe. They are pretty old, but we are still able to get our mission done every time.”
J-STARS is operated jointly by the 116th Air Control Wing, an Air National Guard unit, and the active-duty 461st Air Control Wing. Brant, Carrion and Parks are part of the 461st.
The air crew includes Army personnel to better communicate with troops on the ground.
The deploying airmen will not be going over on one of the J-STARS planes. The plane they will fly in combat operations is already there, and they will be replacing that crew. Brant will deploy for two months while Carrion and Parks will deploy for four.
J-STARS has flown more than 90,000 combat hours in the War on Terrorism. In addition to the specialized training they have received for deployment, J-STARS crews routinely fly training missions out of Robins, and they also have a simulator that can mimic a full mission. Brant said the training scenarios are often far more complex than anything they are likely to face.
“I feel completely prepared to go over there,” he said.