Leave It to the Guard

Jan. 1, 2007

In overseas combat operations, Air National Guard units usually wind up augmenting active duty forces. Usually, but not always. Sometimes, it’s just the Guard, period.

For more than four months in 2006, in fact, Air National Guard units provided the only tactical air control for the entire Iraqi theater. Other Guard units provided most of the close air support.

This heavily ANG-centric rotation lasted for an entire Air and Space Expeditionary Force cycle. It wasn’t a conscious Air Force plan but just a normal swap of units.

In this cycle, Georgia ANG forces controlled all of the air operations. New Jersey and Vermont Air National Guard F-16s flew combat missions supporting ground forces. Other state ANG units contributed C-130 airlift, medical care, and logistic support.

Maj. Gen. Scott A. Hammond, Georgia ANG commander, recalled flying in an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System aircraft above troops belonging to the Army’s 48th Brigade Combat Team. Hammond was listening to aircraft controlled by the 117th Air Control Squadron being handed off to the 165th Air Support Operations Squadron. All of these were Georgia-based Guard units.

“For a brief second,” Hammond said, “I wondered if Georgia might be fighting the whole war.”

Since Operation Enduring Freedom began in Afghanistan in late 2001, E-8 Joint STARS of the 116th Air Control Wing, Robins AFB, Ga., have been heavily engaged. The 116th is USAF’s only “blended wing,” made up of ANG and active duty airmen. (See “The Blended Wing Goes to War,” October 2003, p. 26.)

The wing’s duties were many and varied. Said Lt. Col. William Young, mission crew commander, “We’ve even had to do the coordination to recover damaged vehicles. Essentially, we called for a tow truck and monitored the area until recovery forces arrived.”

The ANG crews of the 116th ACW flew missions over Iraq averaging 13 hours in duration. These missions sometimes would stretch to more than 15 hours. For the 117th ACS of Hunter Army Airfield at Savannah, Ga., daily operations in Iraq also ran to some 13 hours, but any risk of monotony was broken up by mortar and rocket attacks.

Wasting Away

Maj. Sherry Eliason, air surveillance officer, recalled, “Sometimes there’d be nothing for several days. Then there’d be the days that four or five rounds would hit.” So frequent were the attacks that the units referred to their position as “Mortaritaville.”

Maintenance for the 117th proved challenging. According to the squadron’s maintenance superintendent, CMSgt. Richard Rife, “I saw more rain on this trip than on all my Middle Eastern deployments combined.” Heavy rain followed by sandstorms created a cement-like coating on an airplane, which had to be carefully and thoroughly cleaned off after each storm.

“Large portions of the site were under water, and wooden pallets became a huge commodity for a while,” he said.

When air support was required, the 117th ACS, operating in three Iraqi locations, controlled all of the assets. The Guard unit replaced the active duty’s 729th ACS from Hill AFB, Utah, in early January 2006 and was subsequently relieved by the active duty 728th ACS from Eglin AFB, Fla., at the end of a four-month rotation. The transitions were problem-free, according to members of all three units. This pleased the Savannah-based Guard unit members, who had heard questions about whether a Guard squadron would be able to carry out control and reporting center duty.

Responsible for the 277,000 square miles of airspace, the 117th handled its normal repertoire of missions—close air support, aerial refueling, air traffic control liaison, and air defense—for all coalition aircraft in the theater, and then some. The 117th is a mobile unit comprising operators, maintainers, vehicle specialists, computer technicians, and virtually everything else a unit needs to operate in the field independently.

Due to the geographically dispersed sites and the need for long-term sustained coverage, the 117th was joined by personnel from the 141st ACS from the Puerto Rico Air National Guard. The two units had practiced working together since 2001.

Coordinating with deployed air traffic control units, however, proved to be an unexpected challenge. Although handing aircraft off is a routine procedure, running live CAS missions in metropolitan areas isn’t.

With the need to continually move tankers, adjust fighter altitudes, respond to air support requests, and coordinate handoffs to ATC, “sometimes, we had so many aircraft on the radio that it sounded like Atlanta Center, “ recalled the senior director, Lt. Col. Ron Speir.

One task new to the 117th was providing control to unmanned aerial vehicles. “Prior to this deployment, we’d not worked with UAVs,” said the then squadron commander, Lt. Col. Richard Austin, who noted that he was “skeptical of the need to have a pilot driving something my 11-year-old could do in front of his PlayStation.”

Airmindedness Needed

Austin said the aircrews soon became converts to the need to have someone with “airmindedness” controlling UAVs. “When a nonaviator was flying other UAVs, we had numerous violations of the airspace,” he said. “Adhering to the airspace control order is pretty important to keep folks from running into each other during operations. I had to rap some knuckles sometimes.”

The joint terminal attack controllers, JTACs, also played crucial roles in Iraq, noted Lt. Col. Paul G. Havel, commander of the 165th Air Support Operations Squadron, based in Brunswick, Ga. Havel said the battlefield airmen focus on meeting the ground commander’s requirements, and “the bottom line is that we are responsible for putting bombs on target, on time.”

During the first half of 2006, the 165th ASOS deployed as part of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, an active duty unit based at Ft. Stewart, near Savannah. This ANG unit was preceded by active duty JTACs of the 20th ASOS from Ft. Drum, N.Y., and relieved by active duty airmen from the 19th ASOS, Ft. Campbell, Ky. Havel said there was never a question of the Guard airmen being “different” from active duty units.

For example, when Joint STARS operators picked up suspicious movement, a Predator UAV was diverted to take a look. If the Predator spotted something, either a JTAC team or other ground forces were directed to the site. The terminal attack controllers might then request strike aircraft, which would contact the JTAC team, receive target updates, and receive permission to drop weapons.

The JTACs would also provide real-time battle damage assessment. Other than their call signs, officials said there was no difference between active or Guard units.

The JTACs were awarded several Bronze Stars for their support to ground combat units. One of the more dramatic of those episodes involved Maj. A.J. Gaston of the New York ANG’s 274th ASOS, Hancock Field. In April 2006, Gaston was with the 165th, working with a 101st Airborne Division Scout Element patrol in Ramadi.


The 20-man nighttime foot patrol was advancing along Ramadi’s darkened streets when it was struck by an improvised explosive device. One soldier was seriously wounded by the blast and lay bleeding while the other troops took cover and attended to him. Orbiting overhead were two F-15E fighters, called to the scene by Gaston. Enemy fire poured in on the Americans.

Enemy fire was close to the friendly troops and coming from a built-up area, so the use of air-to-ground ordnance ran the risk of “blue on blue” casualties. Instead, Gaston conjured some “psyops” tactics to make the insurgents retreat. He directed the Strike Eagles to fly over low and fast. The F-15Es performed three 500-mile-an-hour passes at rooftop height, dropping white-hot flares normally used to confuse heat-seeking missiles. The insurgents got the message and broke off the engagement.

Members of the 117th ran the primary Operation Iraqi Freedom data link; the squadron provided the air picture to everyone in the theater. The 117th’s Guardsmen fed data to all the air combatants, from those watching a display in the combined air operations center to one relied on by the joint force air component commander and out into the fighter cockpits.

By using a complex system of links, controllers in the various units could monitor numerous aircraft. They could send text messages, as needed, to a specific flight without tying up the voice radio frequency.

Other users, such as intelligence specialists, used their classified systems to update and disseminate perishable targeting information. Strike aircraft directed to destroy fixed targets were often re-roled to attack new targets in only minutes.

You’ve Got Mail

New Jersey’s ANG F-16s were particularly impressed by the greater situational awareness capability. The data links and text capability “really shortened the kill chain,” recalled Lt. Col. Kerry Gentry, then the 332nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron commander. “At times, due to either frequency overload or being outside voice frequency range, we were re-roled to a new target—like a troops in contact situation—without a word being spoken aloud.”

Text messaging was frequently called “mail,” Gentry continued. “Often times, we were flying a planned mission per the [air tasking order] or would be pulling ground alert, and the call would come like, ‘Two’s got mail.'”

Gentry said the system would provide the pilots with the new target, coordinates, and the controller frequency directly on their head-up display, with less chance of information being garbled compared to voice communications. The data link helped the personnel in the joint operations center and the air liaison officers with the infantry divisions to see real-time where aircraft actually were. This allowed them to better allocate resources to unexpected situations.

“One night, while flying to a pre-planned target, we ‘got mail.’” Troops under fire were calling for CAS, Gentry said. He and his wingman were sent the targeting information, which was displayed on their HUDs. “That one text and target symbol saved probably five to 10 minutes from doing everything voice only.”

From high overhead in an E-8C, to the 24/7 coverage of a ground-based air control squadron, to joint terminal attack controllers directing strike missions often flown by Guardsmen in F-16s, the Air National Guard did it all.

Air Force Lt. Col. Braxton Eisel is assigned as an air defense advisor to the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Beaufighters in the Night: The 417th Night Fighter Squadron USAAF, due for publication in 2007. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Tough Old Birds,” appeared in the March 2006 issue.