SAVANNAH, Georgia --
Resiliency and constant preparation is nothing new for residents of the oldest city in Georgia. Since 1733, Savannah has survived the British occupation of the city during the American Revolution and endured General William Tecumseh Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea,’ as the American Civil War drew to a close in late 1864. Most recently the region sustained the rampages of Hurricane Matthew in October of 2016. For the participating units that arrived here to take part in Sentry Savannah 19-2, the area serves as an appropriate training location for traditional Drill Status Guardsmen (DSG) preparing for the unforeseen assignments in a deployed environment.
With over 60 members of the Oregon Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Squadron (ACS) taking part in Sentry Savannah 19-2, April 8-19, the exercise is designed to build upon established skills and focus on key areas of readiness prior to deploying later this year. As other Air National Guard units took part in flying and fighting in the airspace, the 116th ACS meticulously orchestrated the airspace during their two-week annual training period.
“Crew coordination is the most important part of this mission as we prepare for deployment,” explained 116th ACS Director of Operations Maj. Colin Wyatt. “There’s a great deal of information flow when we get downrange with a very saturated and active airspace, this is why we get our Airmen as much training time as possible.”
There are nearly a dozen appropriate metaphors that help define the job of a Control and Reporting Center (CRC): football coach, strategy analyst, and communication directors to name a few. As Wyatt described the work environment and components of the career, 'Orchestra Conductor' was one such comparison he presented.
“There really is an atmosphere of everyone contributing simultaneously and in harmony during a mission,” Wyatt elaborated. “The Mission Commander or Section Lead functions as a conductor; gathering information from external agencies or crew members while listening to the pilot's communication over the radio and processing every action that needs to be accomplished for mission success.”
The preparation for each exercise during Sentry Savannah 19-2 begins well in advance. The team members arrive hours before, preparing the mission and key objectives. Each member is assigned a specific area for the mission; from air surveillance technicians to blue air (friendly) and red air (hostile) controllers, so as the battle starts, they provide tactical fluid control as quickly and accurately to the airborne pilots. Airspace, aircraft tactics, call signs, and the weather is just some of the key aspects that need to be factored into the plan. With units flying from different locations and entering the same airspace provides a realistic training environment within the exercise, similar to what the Airmen will experience when deployed downrange.
The potential mission includes an infinite variety of scenarios in the air-to-ground and air-to-air missions, which include tankers, reconnaissance aircraft, cargo transportation, and search and rescue.
Technology has come along way in the past several years. Desktop computers systems have replaced the outdated Operations Modules where teams worked in separate areas. The new weapons system is called the AN/TYQ-23A Tactical Air Operations Module (TAOM) which provides much more situational awareness of the battlespace and allows the crew members the ability to coordinate amongst themselves much easier.
“The current weapons system we have now is only two years old and it’s ‘night and day’ from the operations modules that we just turned in this past year,” said Wyatt, as he described how all the operators function in one work area during the mission. “It allows for much easier crew coordination--where in the past, we had weapons and surveillance in two different operation modules.”
Similar to how the team will arrive overseas, the Oregon ACS Airmen are utilizing the home station and equipment of the 117th ACS at Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia during the exercise. The 116th ACS was able to use long haul communication and ‘feeds’ to control two of the missions from Oregon in airspace three thousand miles from where the mission was taking place, no small feat by the highly skilled maintenance team the 116th ACS has.
Team members working here in Georgia were quick to find one of several workstations in the CRC designated for their role in the exercise. Executing the mission for the ‘Red Air’ training, Airman 1st Class Soriah Curtis is eager to see how the mission planning would match the actual engagement.
“This is not our normal role but for the exercise it allows us to communicate with the aggressor team,” she explained, while other members prepared for their part in the mission. “The schools and upgrade training is one the reason why I find this job exciting. There is no such thing as a ‘perfect mission’, but our goal is to make each mission successful and learn from the assignment.”
The mission begins to take shape as Fighter Jets; F-15 Eagles from Florida and F-16 Falcons from the Alabama Air National Guard moved into the airspace. Team members begin to coordinate with the Section Lead and coordinate with the tactical assets under their control. While crew members make the ‘call outs’ to the team lead, there is a common language between everyone, whether they are pilots or members of the CRC.
“It’s a proactive and interactive language,” Curtis said. “This allows all of us to be clear and concise as we identify targets while increasing situational awareness during the mission.”
While the mission is taking place in the CRC, other 116th Airmen are running critical support tasks around the site, all part of the total-team approach for the ACS; to include radar and network support, radio transmissions, Power Pro, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, vehicle maintenance, supply specialists and headquarters. Each of these functions is run through the Mission Operations Center and Communications Focal Point. It truly becomes a complete team effort when all the pieces synchronize together.
When the 116th Vehicle Maintenance team arrived in Savannah they found plenty of work that needed to be done on the 117th trucks and other support vehicles. While performing some of the basic routine maintenance, more extensive work that needs extra time was accomplished. From changing oil and fuel filters, to tire rotation, and repairing air conditioning units, the Oregon Airmen facilitated their Georgia counterpart’s vehicles during the extensive annual training period after the 117th ACS’ return from a recent and lengthy deployment.
“As we’re about to be--their team was deployed over the past year so they haven’t had extensive time to perform some of the more involved and regular maintenance procedures,” said Master Sgt. Jeff Wiford, 116th ACS vehicle maintenance supervisor. “This has been a really good annual training period, especially for many of our newer members because they have a chance to learn, stay busy and leave things better than they found them.”
In recent deployments, many of the Vehicle Maintenance technicians have cross-trained with power production used in deployed environments. This has allowed the 116th to take more of their own members downrange to support the assignment objects.
“Because we are not taking our own trucks, we now become part of a larger team deploying with our unit as there are critical positions in Power Pro that need to be filled,” said Wiford.
When the 116th arrives in theater later this year, most of the equipment will already be in place so the training scenario of arriving and working on gear that is “not their own” was a big part of the training plan.
“With this annual training period, we are training on how our actual deployment is going to take shape with gear that’s already established with a short overlap from the previous group that will be departing theater,” said Lt. Col. Victoria Habas, 116th ACS commander.
With approximately 100 people ready to deploy, the 116th has been taking advantage of every training opportunity along the way. With the makeup of the CRC being primarily enlisted members, the unit brings an established resume to the fight. This allows DSG’s extra time to fine-tune their skill sets before deployment.
“This has been a real boost for the CRC team, we’re known for bringing the best controllers and most seasoned team in the career field to overseas environments,” said Habas.
The mission growth for the CRC has pushed the need for more controllers in the career field. “Being any part of the CRC is by far one of the best and most rewarding jobs in the entire Combat Air Forces, said Wyatt.”
“On the horizon, the Air Force is retiring the JSTARS aircraft, and you can expect that the CRC can pick up a portion of that mission in the future,” said Habas.
This is why the unit is adding more skilled Airmen and building enhanced training environments like those comparable to the Sentry Savannah exercise. Quality of training is equaled to the quantity to training, with the current operational tempo of Air National Guard units deploying every three to four years, making the need of training in environments outside of Oregon important.
“We have one of the most extensive mission qualification training programs, I believe in the entire Air Force. We spend months and months preparing our DSG’s for crew coordination and the longer downrange mission,” said Wyatt.
To complete Mission Qualification Training (MQT) the Air Force Instruction only requires two missions and a ‘check ride.’ The 116th ACS, on average, conducts 30-35 MQT missions with their DSGs to prepare them for any contingency operation they may be required to support.
“We go above and beyond with our MQT program and some may say too much but I don’t,” Wyatt summarized. “There are a ton of opportunities outside of the one weekend a month and two weeks a year requirement for our (DSG’s) Airmen. There are continual opportunities to support Air Combat Command training exercises such as Red Flag or Weapons School support that our DSG’s take advantage of on a regular basis--we have a group of extremely driven individuals.”
In the overall synopsis, Wyatt said the key to preparing for future missions is an entire team effort within the unit; “Nothing can get accomplished without all the Maintenance support and Administration functions.”
“We are really fortunate to have not only talented Airmen in the 116th but a group that is excited and motivated to be part of the broader chorus and the larger Air Force picture.”