Kadena Airmen Recognized As Best Field-Level Maintainers in Entire Military

The maintainers for the largest combat wing in the Air Force were recognized as the best field-level maintenance unit in the entire Department of Defense for 2023 late last month, when the the 18th Maintenance Group from Kadena Air Base, Japan, was awarded the annual Phoenix Award at the DOD Maintenance Symposium in San Diego, Calif.

“Phoenix Award winners are considered to be the best of the best and held in very high esteem as the top-performing field-level maintenance unit in the Department,” a press release explained.

The largest combat-coded maintenance group in the Air Force, the 18th has more than 2,400 Airmen and experienced a busy 2023, generating 7,601 sorties and 17,600 flight hours with the 18th Wing’s fleet of F-15C/D fighters, KC-135 refueling tankers, HH-60 helicopters, and E-3 airborne warning and control aircraft. 

Thanks to their hard work, the 80 total aircraft assigned to Kadena could fly air interdiction, combat search and rescue, aerial refueling, aeromedical evacuation, and command and control battle management missions across the Indo-Pacific theater.

kadena maintain
Airman 1st Class Aris Leid, 18th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief, hands a tool to Staff St. Gary Barber, 18th AMXS crew chief, while he prepares to remove a central gearbox from an F-15C Eagle at Kadena Air Base, Japan, Sept. 23, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks)

Located on the island of Okinawa, a mere 400 miles from China and 375 miles from Taiwan, Kadena could serve as a vital position and potential staging ground for U.S. operations in case of conflict with the People’s Republic of China over Taiwan.

As the base phases out its aging F-15s, a revolving door of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters have flown in to maintain a fighter presence there. In November, the wing hosted a 33-plane “elephant walk” where helicopters, tankers, Air Force and Navy fighters, an MQ-9 drone, and other aircraft taxied down the runway together.

Throughout 2023, the 18th Maintenance group “provided intermediate-level maintenance, engine maintenance, and test equipment calibration for the entire Indo-Pacific region as the engine centralized repair facility,” a DOD press release said. It also hosted the only active-duty Air Force base-level Precision Measurement Equipment Laboratory, a facility “responsible for calibrating equipment used in virtually every phase of maintenance,” according to the Air Force website. 

The release also noted that the 18th Maintenance Group “played a critical role” during Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) 2022 visit to Taiwan, the highest-ranking congressional delegation to the island in 25 years.

Back in September 2023, the Pentagon announced six field-level maintenance award winners, across large, medium, and small categories, including units from the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. The 912th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., was one of the small category winners. The department defines field maintenance as what can be accomplished at the shop level (intermediate) and on-equipment (organizational). 

From that group of six, only one can receive the annual Phoenix Award. The 2022 winner was the Navy’s first operational F-35C squadron. The phoenix is a mythological bird that is consumed by flames and then reborn from its own ashes.

“Periodically, so states the myth, the phoenix would again and again be reborn,” a DOD spokesperson wrote in 2021. “This unique ability of the legendary phoenix to rejuvenate and renew itself characterizes the role maintenance plays in sustaining DOD weapon systems and equipment.”

The Phoenix trophy is permanently displayed in the Pentagon, where for the next year it will bear the unit insignia for the 18th Maintenance Group. The group also received a traveling version to display until next year’s winner is announced.

Maintainers from the 18th Maintenance Group remove a tire from a KC-135 Stratotanker during an isochronal inspection at Kadena Air Base, Japan, May 22, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by Naoto Anazawa)

There are hundreds of field-level maintenance units across the military, but alongside the Phoenix Award, the DOD also issues the Robert T. Mason Award for Depot Maintenance Excellence, and the Rear Admiral Grace M. Hopper Award for Software Maintenance Excellence. The 76th Software Engineering Group based at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. picked up this year’s Hopper Award.