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Silicon Valley rescue C-130s go digital

Two MC-130P Combat Shadow tanker aircraft from the 129th Rescue Wing, Moffett Federal Airfield, Calif., taxi on the Moffett flightline. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Daniel Kacir)

Two MC-130P Combat Shadow tanker aircraft from the 129th Rescue Wing, Moffett Federal Airfield, Calif., taxi on the Moffett flightline. A test version of the communication format called Situation Awareness Data Link, or SADL, was recently installed and evaluated on a 129th MC-130P Combat Shadow tanker. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Daniel Kacir)

MOFFETT FEDERAL AIRFIELD, Calif. -- Nestled in the center of the world's technology epicenter is the 129th Rescue Wing of the California National Guard. Search and rescue is the wing's primary mission, which often involves low-tech but courageous life-saving actions.

The mission is about to get a high-tech boost from an innovative communication system called the Situation Awareness Data Link, or SADL. A test version of the system recently was installed and evaluated on a 129th RQW MC-130P Combat Shadow tanker.

Similar to the Link 16 format used by other Air Force platforms, such as F-15 Eagles, SADL is a military communications system that supports the exchange of tactical information between air and land assets in near real time. Operators can digitally access this information from command and control systems instead of receiving verbal reports and then annotating the information on paper. The system is already in use by A-10A/C Thunderbolt IIs and some F-16C Fighting Falcons.

"When the 129th Rescue Wing responds to crises such as the California wildfires and Hurricane Ike last year, a significant observation was the need for a self-contained airborne network capability to facilitate digital communications between rescue aircraft, pararescue forces, and distant command centers," said Lt. Col. Steve Butow, 129th Operations Group deputy commander. "These rescue forces will no longer be constrained to voice only communications in their life saving mission."

Also recognizing this need for digital airborne communications were participants in the Guard and Reserve Weapons and Tactics Conference, or WEPTAC, which takes place annually at the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Test Center, or AATC, in Tucson, Ariz.

"The Situation Awareness Data Link was on the primary objective list during WEPTAC the past four years," said Maj. Jose Agredano, 129th Operations Group chief of tactics and 2008 WEPTAC chairman. "We were able to bring the major players together last year and brainstorm a walk-on solution."

The service's need for the system coupled with the 129th RQW's operational experience provided momentum for generating a solution at WEPTAC. 

"The data link is one of the Air Force's highest priorities for today's joint fight," Colonel Butow added.

The 129th RQW was one of three units evaluating a more permanent SADL solution. The 129th, along with C-130 Hercules from the West Virginia Air National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing in Charleston and Air Force Reserve Command's 910th Airlift Wing from Youngstown-Warren Air Reserve Station, Ohio, participated in an operational utility evaluation with the AATC at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., April 13 to 17. 

"The exercise was a huge step for not only this unit but for every unit that participated," said Tech. Sgt. Elliott Paige, 130th Rescue Squadron radio operator with the 129th Rescue Wing. He was the first 130th RQS RO trained on SADL and coordinated the SADL channels with the Western Air Defense Sector for training here and at the evaluation.

"There were Reserve and Guard units working side-by-side to prove the interoperability of this highly capable system, and develop 9tactics, techniques and procedures) and a working solution for aircrews operating this system," Sergeant Paige said.

After testing SADL at Davis-Monthan, 129th RQW operators came home with a sense of accomplishment and are excited about the positive impact SADL will have on future missions at home and abroad.

"Rescue MC-130Ps will serve as a digital gateway for other military aircraft and land forces during disaster response operations such as a Bay Area earthquake response," Colonel Butow said. "It is only fitting that Silicon Valley's specialized rescue force be amongst the first to go digital."

In the coming years, HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and the Guardian Angel pararescue weapon system will also be equipped with SADL. All three rescue weapon systems will have the ability to share digital information, which will enhance the unit's ability to save lives.

"SADL will revolutionize rescue," Major Agredano said. "The possibilities are endless."