Air Force Team Goes Army Green
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
WHEELER ARMY AIRFIELD, Hawaii, May. 9, 1997 A column of equipment-laden soldiers, M-16 rifles tightly gripped, radio antennas bobbing from backpacks, slogs along the rain-soaked, red-mud shoulder of a winding rural road.
But wait: Aren't those Air Force chevrons on the camouflage sleeves of their battle dress utilities? It's true. These aren't soldiers, they're airmen. Airmen, it seems, who seldom grace a flight line and almost never wear blue. Instead, they spend most of their service years with the Army. As enlisted tactical air controllers and weather observers, they're the eyes and ears of the close air support Army infantry needs to beat the enemy.
"We look like Army, but to a person, we're darned proud to be Air Force," said Lt. Col. Buddy Knox, commander of the 25th Air Support Operations Squadron. "We're tightly knit, like the soldiers in the 25th Infantry Division we support. "We 'PT' as a squadron three hours a day, five days a week, and we take the Army physical fitness test. But our chain of command is Air Force."
Well, mostly -- Knox serves on the division commander's staff, and the other air liaison officers perform similar functions in each of the division's brigades. In the field, the airmen deploy and work alongside the grunts, eat Army rations and, if necessary, fire Army ammo. But the air strikes they order come through strictly Air Force channels -- mostly A-10s and F-16s that fly in loud and low to the ground to destroy enemy tanks, trucks and fortifications.
"Being a tactical air controller is tough duty with tremendous responsibility," Knox said. "We don't order anyone to do it; they have to volunteer. Out there in the field, they've got to have the confidence to call in air strikes."
They gain their confidence through nearly continuous training and rigorous physical fitness that includes weekly 10-mile hikes toting rucksacks that weigh at least 40 pounds. "Each of us carries UHF and VHF radios, additional batteries, M-16 rifles, 9 mm pistols and ammo," Staff Sgt. Ed Yuhasz said about two-thirds of the way through a march. Was he tired from the long trek in 85 degree weather and a persistent rain? "Not really."
Today's enlisted controllers perform a job formerly done by highly qualified fighter pilots. "After it became a separate service in 1947, the Air Force agreed to provide the Army close air support," Knox explained. "But with the Air Force getting smaller, fewer pilots are available. So after training and certification, enlisted tactical air controllers do the job air liaison officers used to do."
The transition has brought the 25th full-circle. In the 1940s, the unit's "flying sergeants" piloted aerial observation planes, pinpointing enemy positions for bombers and fighters. After World War II, the Air Force turned the mission over to commissioned pilots.
Today, Knox said, the enlisted controllers and weather operations specialists run the squadron, while the officers take care of overarching issues such as integrating Army plans with Air Force flying operations. It's a two-year assignment for the officers, three for the enlisted men and women, although most request a one-year extension. It's good duty, almost all agree.
They deploy in teams, each with a corresponding infantry battalion. At all times, a team is packed and ready to go. The deployment "kit" includes humvees loaded with sophisticated Mark-144 radio communications systems.
Weather observers bring their own equipment, including a laser optical range finder to determine visibility for incoming pilots, and a Global Positioning System device to download time, latitude and longitude information from a satellite.
"We didn't used to consider weather when we planned or did a mission," Knox said. But pilots need good weather information, so two years ago the squadron fully integrated weather operations. Using a compact, mobile work station and Inmarsat satellite up-link, observers can access imagery, weather bulletins and charts and within a day of deploying, begin building a weather data base. They also can measure barometric pressure and wind speed. "Such information is vital to planning close air support," Knox said.
Knox likes to cite his unit's training accomplishments and its impact on combat air. "Our weather flight was named best in the Air Force in 1995 and best in Pacific Air Forces in 1996," he said. "And according to one Army general, the 25th ASOS conducted the best training ever during a battle command training program -- the Army's battalion-level exercise. Our light field maintenance concept is now the standard throughout Air Combat Command."
Knox initiated the latter during an earlier assignment in Alaska. "In the old days, it took a big C-141 to deploy our people and equipment," he said. "We had to find a way to get everything on a smaller C-130." The result is a mobile maintenance shelter that doubles as a communications center and packs enough spare equipment to keep all deployed Mark 144s operating.
A further measure of the unit's cohesiveness -- a 1996 social actions climate assessment -- found the squadron's morale to be the highest in the Hawaiian Islands, despite the fact squadron members deploy 90-120 days a year, and when not deployed, chances are they're training.
Out in the early spring rain, team leader Tech. Sgt. Harry Oliver took long, purposeful strides, once in a while glancing back or ahead, checking on his troops.
"I taught a lot of these people, and now I'm seeing how well I taught them," said Oliver, for 4 1/2 years an instructor at the Joint Firepower Control Course, Hurlburt Field, Fla. "I taught them well," he said with a grin.