Electronic Warfare Adds Crucial Component to Mission Readiness

MOFFETT FEDERAL AIRFIELD, Calif. -- Given the high-tech tactics that constitute the combat theater in the 21st Century, the difference between life and death can boil down to a blip on a radar screen.

Elements of electronic warfare, in particular surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), were developed during World War II and used extensively in the Vietnam War.

Forty years later, the ever-present threat of a SAM--especially while in a deployed environment--is what led more than 40 California Air National Guardsmen from the 129th Rescue Squadron to convene in early March for a week of electronic warfare training. 

'Wars are Changing'

"The theatres in Afghanistan and Iraq didn't really have a radar threat based on the enemies we were fighting, so it's fortunate that we haven't had to deal with it in the past ten years," said Maj. Brian Finnerty, 129th Rescue Squadron Commander and helicopter pilot. "However, the world is changing, the wars are changing, and we don't know what the future holds. This is one thing we may have to encounter. "

Positioned at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, the training included three days of flying the rescue wing's HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters over the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Ground near the Arizona-Mexican border, as well as two days of over-water training along the Southern California coastline. According to Finnerty, the locale provided the needed "happy medium" between desert and ocean.

With the 129th Rescue Squadron on schedule to deploy later this year, Maj. Travis McDevitt said the training improves the ability of Airmen to operate safely in a hostile environment, to discern which threats cannot be defeated and how to survive those that can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

"To protect ourselves and get away from threats requires four people to work together closely, and that interaction is what improved the most," McDevitt said. "It's the satisfaction at the end of three days, of seeing an air crew that was making mistakes, come out of an exercise successfully defeating a weapon system that just two days prior was shooting them down." 

A helicopter pilot with the 129th since 2012, McDevitt said the resurgence of electronic warfare training is in tune with a "renewed focus on a sophisticated enemy"--one which makes the 129th's mission of personnel recovery even more critical.

"I've been doing this for fifteen years, and the rescue mission is certainly the most rewarding thing about flying for the Air Force," said McDevitt. "It feels really good to realize someone is going to go home and see their friends and family again, and not be in a coffin on that trip."

Team Work

According to gunner Staff Sgt. Edward Drew, there's no such thing as rank in a helicopter, only crew position.

"Egos go out the window and take a side step to focus on the mission itself and the safety of the crew," Drew said.

In addition to honing his skills inside a 'helo,' the training provided Drew the chance to sit inside an enemy vehicle equipped with operational electronic warfare systems, and watch them go to work.

"We know what the threat is, we have all this info, but we didn't know how the threat actually operates. Being able to crawl inside really helped put together a full picture of the defenses they're using, of what the people who oppose us have to work with. It adds a human factor that you can use for the fight."

Mission Support

Though it doesn't grab headlines, the biggest challenge within large-scale training missions is often logistics--moving helicopters, hazardous materials, life-support equipment and dozens of personnel to an unfamiliar environment and providing continuous support. Not to mention a crew of maintainers working around the clock to keep the aircraft flying and deal with last-minute changes.

This time around, a case of busted tail rotors required Airmen from the 129th's base in Mountain View to make a last-minute dash by truck to haul in replacements parts.

"We have to make sure aircrafts are fully mission-capable.  And when they're not, we have to get creative," said MSgt. Cleve Burt, who has spent six years with the 129th Maintenance Squadron. "But we have a good working group of primarily a young team now. It can take several years for them to get up to speed, but the young kids coming up have a lot of smarts to them, and different ways of looking at things."

Communication Navigation Specialist Airman 1st Class Robin Gaetos is one such example. Having joined the 129th in 2013 following her enlistment, this was her first training mission--and she will deploy for the first time later this year.

"Being new can be nerve-wracking, but the training is going to help me handle the pressure of knowing my specialty and knowing what to do, using the resources I have especially when they're limited," Gaetos said. "Hopefully I can be as good as the people who train me."

Deployment Ready

With more than 1,000 saves to its credit, the 129th is tasked to perform personnel recovery anywhere in the world--a complex and rigorous mission that requires constant training across a multitude of environments.

The weeklong training mission to Camp Pendleton, therefore, ensured that participants keep their certifications current and remain proficient. 

"By getting the crews and maintainers down here--to a deployed location if you will--we really focused on flying operations and reinvigorated our tactical training," said Finnerty. "This week is one building block toward getting this squadron ready to deploy."