By 1Lt Kinder L. Blacke, 552d Air Control Wing Public Affairs
/ Published December 09, 2008
8 December 2008 --
The 552nd Air Control Wing is popularly known for the E-3 Sentry aircraft, which can often be seen flying through the skies of Oklahoma City out of Tinker Air Force Base. The unique jet, complete with a giant rotating radome affixed on top, needs no introduction.
However, the 552 ACW's newest warning and control system is not so conspicuous.
In May, the Air Force's four CONUS Air Control Squadrons moved under the 552 ACW as part of the newly designated 552nd Air Control Group. Joining the wing were the 607 ACS at Luke AFB, Arizona, the 726 ACS at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, the 728 ACS at Eglin AFB, Florida, and the 729 ACS at Hill AFB, Utah.
With the addition of the ACSs, the 552 ACW added the Control and Reporting Center to its inventory of weapon systems.
The CRC is a ground mobile command, control and communications radar element of the United States Air Force theater air control system. Similar to the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System, a CRC integrates a comprehensive air picture via multiple data links from air-, sea-, and land-based sensors, as well as from its surveillance and control radars, but it does so operating on the ground, as opposed to in the air, like AWACS. It performs decentralized command and control of joint operations by conducting threat warning, battle management, theater missile defense, weapons control, combat identification, and strategic communications.
Before the activation of the 552nd Air Control Group, the CRCs were assigned to separate operational wings. As a result of the activation, Air Combat Command's AWACS and CRCs reside under the command of a single wing commander for the first time. According to Col. Pat Hoffman, commander, 552 ACW, the consolidation is already paying big dividends.
"In the short eight months since combining the AWACS and CRCs under one wing, we've already gained great improvements in scheduling, training, force management, and standardization," said Colonel Hoffman. "We've made some critical capability advances this year, and we'll continue to build upon that as we strengthen the partnership between AWACS and CRCs, and among other units in the theater air control system."
"Our squadron brings command and control capabilities to theater from ground-based radar to support the ground forces in their missions," said Capt. Adam Buczynskyj, operations training officer, 726th Air Control Squadron.
A full CRC unit is comprised of 350 personnel and has equipment worth approximately $270 million, including 177 vehicles, two TPS-75 Radars, three Ground Multi-band Satellite Terminals, four Operations Modules, 22 power generators, five fuel trucks, and nine shelters.
CRCs are mobile and modular, giving the Air Force the flexibility to transport the system anywhere in the world and tailor it to specific needs.
"Given the breadth of the 552nd Air Control Wing, the addition of CRCs has greatly increased the number of available options for meeting the C2 and battle management requirements of combatant commanders. If a persistent, comm-intensive solution is needed, we can accomplish that with a CRC. If a more flexible, rapidly deployable platform is required, we can provide AWACS to meet mission requirements," said Col. Scott Fischer, commander, 552 ACG.
The 726th Air Control Squadron from Mountain Home AFB is currently proving the capabilities of a forward-located CRC.
Led by the 726 ACS Commander, Lieutenant Col. Bryan Gates, 197 Airmen deployed to Joint Base Balad, Iraq in September 2008 to spend almost five months operating a CRC in this forward location. The combined efforts of the 726 ACS and several other contributing squadrons came together as the 727th Expeditionary Air Control Squadron, or "Kingpin," said Colonel Gates, who serves as the in-country commander for the 727 EACS.
"This is not a new mission for the CRCs; they started operating out of Kuwait in 1994 and moved into Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003 in support of Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM. Their continual presence is crucial to providing combatant commanders with ongoing airspace management and control in support of daily operations," said Colonel Fischer.
Their mission at this forward location is "to control the skies over Iraq, while providing battle management command and control (BMC2) of Airpower supporting the Ground Component Commander," according to Colonel Gates.
"The squadron is comprised of personnel with 27 different Air Force Specialty Codes working in unison to get the mission done 24/7, 365," said Colonel Gates. "We enable Airpower to support our Army brethren on the ground, be it through kinetic strikes or surveillance of assigned Named Areas of Interest," he said.
The 24-hour operation of the CRC that is required in theater is a challenge the ACS Airmen have become accustomed to. "That is what a CRC does for a living," Colonel Gates said.
It is clear that the 727 EACS has mastered the continuous operations tempo. As of Nov 10, Kingpin had recorded "a 100 percent system up time for over eight weeks," said Colonel Gates, and had "safely controlled over 15,216 sorties."
Despite aging equipment and a smaller workforce, these statistics have remained consistently high throughout five years of combat service in Iraq, according to Colonel Fischer.
"I have the best Airmen in the United States Air Force working with me. They are the first to step up to any task," Colonel Gates said. "As a commander, there is no better unit."
The 727 EACS has had to take a remarkably big step in order to operate successfully at this tempo. Maintenance Airmen work around the clock to "keep air control equipment and systems operational and properly maintained so air power can be delivered anytime, anywhere," said Capt. Justin Monday, chief of maintenance, 727 EACS.
"I manage the best communication and maintenance personnel in the Air Force who maintain continuous operational capability, 24-hours-per-day, of tactical radar, satellite, radio, network, data link, digital, generator, supply, vehicle, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and equipment," said Captain Monday. "The direct result is air battle management for every aircraft within our reach, getting bombs on target, and maintaining air superiority while providing an instantaneous and continuous air picture to the Combined Air Operations Center and the Combined Forces, Air Component Commander," he added.
Providing continuous BMC2 to commanders in theater requires Airmen in the air control squadrons to deploy frequently. "We have an individual who has deployed five times in the last five years," said Colonel Gates. "We are used to the dust and the weather and the long work days."
"The overall challenge is the comfort levels," said Tech. Sgt. Ray Hutchens, surveillance technician, 727 EACS. "No food is ever as good as Mom makes and deployed locations are never as good as our home station. However, we all know why we're here and all thrive on the opportunity to 'do our part.' We have an outstanding squadron that takes care of their people and does what it can to relieve deployment stress," Sergeant Hutchens added.
"Being away from family and friends for a long time, working in a very hazardous environment, living in very close quarters, working long hours and not getting as much sleep as you may need" are all challenges that contribute to deployment stress, according to Tech. Sgt. Eric Sexton, surveillance technician, 727 EACS.
However, the sacrifices of deployment are for a worthy cause. "The big picture is to ensure the sovereignty of the Iraq air space and to one day hand over this country's air space to the Iraqi controllers," said Sergeant Sexton. "The most rewarding part about being deployed is knowing that I am a part of an organization that is making a positive change to a country in need," he added.
Colonel Gates agreed. "Our efforts have enabled the Army and Air Force to roll up Al Qaeda members throughout Iraq with minimal losses."
"It is rewarding to know that I am protecting my family and friends back home from the threat of international terrorism," said Capt. Buczynskyj.
The bottom-line according to Sergeant Hutchens: "The men and women of the 727 EACS recognize the significance of our mission and we're dedicated to its success. We work hard as a cohesive unit, accomplishing all required objectives - 24/7. Kingpin rocks!"