Comm & AWACS: Exploring link between 552nd Communications Group, AWACS mission

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Stacy Fowler
  • 552nd Air Control Wing Public Affairs
When the E-3 Sentry conducts its missions at home and around the world, every Airman in the wing has their own part in the mission's success. For many people, the implied 552nd Communications Group's mission revolves around office computers, the telephone lines and network communications - but that is only a very small part of the 552nd CG mission.

A unique group, an important mission
"We are unique in the fact that our mission places us closer to the flightline than any typical Comm Group," said Col. John Pericas, 552nd CG commander. "We work hand-in-hand with flying operations to sustain and improve what AWACS brings to the fight."

The Air Battle Managers depend on the Comm Group to build, issue and track communications security and mission software kits, as well as provide post-mission archives of past Sentry data and databases. The group provides 24-hour software support to improve the operational effectiveness of the E-3 and its crews.

While at Tinker, the Comm Group supports six flying squadrons in the states, as well as two E-3 squadrons at Kadena Air Base, Japan, and Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska. Group personnel also deploy 365 days a year supporting operations such as NOBLE EAGLE and President of the United States (POTUS) missions at home and abroad, counter-drug missions in South America, and Operations IRAQI FREEDOM and ENDURING FREEDOM.

The group is divided into two units: the 552nd Computer Support Squadron and the 752nd Communications Squadron.

"We're not geeks - we're nerds"
The Airmen in the 552nd CSS embrace their 'nerdiness' with pride - they are the ones who write the scope programs used during AWACS missions.

"Here in the CSS, we're not geeks - we're nerds," said Tech. Sgt. Brett Bittle, 552nd CSS training flight NCO. "These guys are incredibly smart, and they are the ones who are responsible for the AWACS scope capabilities. They know more about codes for the AWACS programs than almost anyone! All that's missing is the pocket protectors to let people know how smart these programmers are!"

The CSS not only writes the programs used by the ABMs during missions, they also ensure those programs are compatible with other U.S. surveillance aircraft and other command, control and communications aircraft around the world. There are several steps to the program-building process: writing the codes, testing the codes and then certifying the codes not just through the Air Force, but through allied nation's systems.

They get up to date requests from the ABMs using their programs, and are constantly updating and improving their results. This process takes a lot of time - two years to be exact! After the codes are written, they are tested using computer simulation with the flight simulators and experienced AWACS crews.

"We have already been working on newer codes based on the 'rack-and-stack' requests from the ABMs," said Maj. Steven Phelps, 552nd CSS Operational Test Flight commander.

"It takes a year to write the codes, then another year to test and certify the codes. Everyone in this unit works together to make sure it's done right. If it isn't done right, you could have problems during missions - and someone could get hurt."

Fly-away communications
After the codes are given the "thumbs-up" for use during real-world missions, the 752nd Communications Squadron takes over.

Airmen in the 752nd CS are a fully-deployable asset for the E-3 - they provide a wide array of day-to-day secure communications and computer support.

"We're the ones who make sure the flyers have all the kits they need when they go out for a mission," said Staff Sgt. Jamie Sherman, a 752nd CS AWACS media technician. "Our troops have gone everywhere with the AWACS: South America, POTUS missions, as well as a lot of deployments and exercises here and overseas in the desert."

Squadron members build and issue three kits to AWACS aircrews: mission software that drives the E-3 computer and radar system; communications security kit for voice and data transmissions and encryptions; and the High Frequency Messenger kit that enables classified message capability onboard the E-3.

In addition, Airmen deploy with the E-3 around the world to ensure those kits are updated, archived and cleared - while at the same time keeping the secured communications lines open and ready if and when they are needed. Sometimes called the "first 400 feet" communications, ground comm technicians in the 752nd make sure the ground-to-ground and air-to-ground communications are working properly.

"We have to make sure that all our equipment is fully-functional before we step out the door," said Tech. Sgt. Kerry Splitter, 752nd CS ground communications NCO. "If it's not working we figure out why - and we don't call it a day until it is fixed."

The next generation of AWACS
The majority of AWACS hardware, both in the mission simulators and on the aircraft, dates back to the 1970s - and challenges sometimes come up when today's computer programs interact during missions.

But that is scheduled to change with the development of Block 40/45.

"It's like upgrading from a Commodore 64 computer to one of today's high-speed computer systems," said Staff Sgt. Daniel Drennen, a 552nd CSS test analyst. "We've always upgraded the software to keep up with changes in warfare, but we were still having to use the same hardware. With 40/45, it will exponentially increase our capabilities - and that will prove incredibly useful in today's military."

In addition, Airmen are working on new ways to "replay" past missions in a more three-dimensional way. Currently, the only way to view mission replays is through a two-dimensional, black screen view - which doesn't show all aspects of what might affect an AWACS mission.

"We want to be able to give crews, commanders and any investigators the ability to see what the AWACS has done in a real-world view," said Airman 1st Class John Torgerson, one of the Airmen in the 552nd CSS working on the upgrades. "We hope that this new method increases our abilities to know just what happened during a mission."

With the E-3 Sentry celebrating its 30th anniversary in the Air Force's fleet, change is going to be a constant for Airmen.

"The Comm Group has been working hard to redefine its relevance of what it will bring to the fight in the long term," Colonel Pericas said. "We must continue to provide world-class software development, while transforming to support the implementation and operation of the E-3G. We must structure our group and train our people to simultaneously support [all AWACS upgrades], as well as focus on airborne networking and contributing to the advancement of AWACS as a network-centric operations platform."