Gunfighter Flag: Two sets of eyes in the sky

Members of the 963rd Airborne Air Control Squadron monitor air operations, March 15, while flying over the Pacific Northwest. The 963rd AACS is assigned to Tinker, and came to Mountain Home AFB to participate in the Gunfighter Flag exercise. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jessica H. Smith)

Members of the 963rd Airborne Air Control Squadron monitor air operations, March 15, while flying over the Pacific Northwest. The 963rd AACS is assigned to Tinker, and came to Mountain Home AFB to participate in the Gunfighter Flag exercise. (Air Force photo by Senior Airman Jessica H. Smith)

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho --

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho — Members of the 963rd Airborne Air Control Squadron from Tinker Air Force Base, visited to participate in the Gunfighter Flag exercise alongside our very own 726th Air Control Squadron.

Although the Air Force is known for air superiority, most commonly fighters are the image used to represent our fighting force, most not realizing the importance of air controllers’ role in keeping those very aircraft aware of what’s going on in the airspace.

During the extensive exercise, the F-15s were able to test their capabilities as well as gain pilot training with the help of the 726th ACS and the 963rd AACS, both providing command and control throughout the duration of the exercise.

“Without us, they’re relying their whole survivability, their whole detection of enemy aircraft, their whole detection of enemy ground targets based off of their radar,” said Senior Airman Kyle Gregory, 726th ACS weapons director. “Having that command and control asset like us – like the AWACS – allows them to coordinate with us and see a greater picture that maybe their radars wouldn’t be able to give them.”

Not only do the fighter aircraft benefit from this partnership, but so does the AWACS. Since most of the routine training is simulated, actually working and integrating with the live pilots gave an uncommon but valuable opportunity.

“Typically, we don’t get to do face-to-face mission planning with fighters we’re going to be working with the next day,” said Capt. Ashley Ritzert, 963rd AACS senior director. “That’s huge – to be able to sit in mission planning and explain your capabilities and limitations to another fighter unit and them doing the same thing so you know how to help them.”

Ritzert believes there’s no better training to prepare for the Air Force mission than real world activity. By putting two live bodies in separate platforms the crew members were able to do just that — working with one another through system degradations and malfunctions.

While the integration between the AWACS and fighters is important, so is merging the two control reporting centers. The 726th ACS and 963rd AACS operate a little differently from one another.

The 726th ACS is a mobile squadron with one radar system it uses to control aircraft and monitor the battlefield, allowing it to be stationed wherever the Air Force needs it – on the ground. The 963rd AACS is an airborne squadron utilizing the AWACS, enabling it to control from the sky with a more advanced radar system.

“(The AWACS) being up there in the same zone as what we’re controlling in allows us to separate the responsibilities we have – it allows them to control some portions and allows us to control some portions,” Gregory said.

With the difference in radar technology and the ability to get closer to the fight, the AWACS is able to see more than a ground CRC which may have obstructions in the controller’s line of sight, possibly hindering or limiting what they can do.

“What (the AWACS) provides is an early warning coverage for the area of responsibility we’re controlling,” Ritzert said, “So that generates an air picture that we’re able to communicate back to other command and control agencies and also to fighter platforms so we can actually build and shape the battlespace.”

Despite their differences, they act as a team downrange trying to obtain one common operating picture, making their interaction during exercises and training all the more important; proving to one another their competencies as controllers. By training together, they are able to learn from their mistakes and take lessons learned back to their units.

“Downrange, this is what we’re doing – the airspace is so large; there are so many players that we need to keep track of – just as an ACS alone, there’s no possible way we’d be able to do it,” Gregory said. “We need integration from all these people and working in exercises like this gives us real life training.”