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Looking back; 513th manages difficult year, looks forward to brighter 2015

Photos of the 513th Air Control Group during 2014. (U.S. Air Force photos/Staff Sgt. Caleb Wanzer)

Photos of the 513th Air Control Group during 2014. (U.S. Air Force photos/Staff Sgt. Caleb Wanzer)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The 513th Air Control Group had both a challenging and exciting year in 2014, dealing with news of potential deactivation while at the same time continuing the mission, sending Airmen on missions anywhere from Saudi Arabia to South Korea and everywhere in between.

Col. David Robertson, the 513th commander, couldn't be more proud of everything the only airborne warning and control system unit in the Air Force Reserve has accomplished this year.

"The reserves are about family, mission and excellence," Robertson said. "In facing probably the most challenging year in our history, the 513th has continued to perform its mission at peak levels while maintaining our culture of family that keeps us coming back year after year."

Proposed Deactivation
March brought difficult news for the 513th, with the proposed 2015 budget including a deactivation of the group and a reduction of the E-3 Sentry fleet by seven.

"Most of us in the group were surprised to read in the newspaper that we would be closing at the end of the budget year," said Chief Master Sgt. Jeff Davis, the group superintendent.  "This was a tough time for the unit and we did not have a lot of answers. As the process played out we received a crash course education on the force structure realignment."

While Congress wrestled with the defense bills over the summer, the group's leaders were hard at work, making sure that the Senate and House both understood the expertise and cost effectiveness that the 513th brings to the AWACS community.

On May 1, Robertson and Davis traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with two U.S. Representatives and two Senators from Oklahoma who were all very supportive of the AWACS Reservists.

"When we met with our representatives we learned that they were on our side and that they were going to do everything they could to save the 513th," Davis said. "Due to budget constraints, Congress had to save money. The reserves as a whole are less expensive to operate than an active-duty unit and already bring to the table everything the Air Force needs: experience, capability and reduced cost."

As the defense authorization and spending bills made it through their respective subcommittees and committees on the Hill, each time Congress voted to keep the 513th in the fight.

After the process was complete and the differences between the House and Senate versions were resolved, Congress committed to keep the 513th and all of the E-3s in the inventory. The president signed the 2015 defense bill along with 11 other spending bills on Dec. 19.

"We always knew that the 513th is the best, hands down, at what we do," Davis said. "We have proven that throughout our existence. Our maintenance sets the bar on the flight line and our operators have tons of experience.

"They won't be able to find any group of Airmen that can do the job better than us." Davis said.

Mobile Training Teams
Even in the middle of deactivation talks, the 513th stayed active, sending Airmen from the 970th Airborne Air Control Squadron to the Republic of South Korea and Saudi Arabia to train allied air forces on their respective AWACS fleets.

"It was great to be able to help our partner nations," said Lt. Col. Doug Lomheim, an air battle manager with the 970th and one of the instructors who trained airmen with the Royal Saudi Arabian Air Force. "We were able to quickly upgrade their AWACS capability so they could perform missions like anti-terrorism sorties."

The training came with plenty of challenges, Lomheim said. Delays caused by aircraft maintenance and real-world missions forced him and the other instructors to stay flexible and come up with creative ways to use the downtime.

"We had only one jet with no backups available," he said. "Sometimes that aircraft would be needed elsewhere, so we ended up doing other training on the ground."

The opportunity for training allied air forces doesn't come around often, so Lomheim was excited to be a part of the four-man mobile training team, which included one active-duty Airman from the 552nd Air Control Wing.

By taking on the foreign training task, the 513th was able to free up 552nd Airmen to fulfill other  requirements, he said.

Rim of the Pacific 2014
More than 60 reservists from the 513th Air Control Group spent nearly two weeks flying missions last July to support the Rim of the Pacific 2014 exercise at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

The 970th Airborne Air Control Squadron flew the only E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft in the exercise, according to Lt. Col. Brent Vander Pol, the 970th commander and the detachment commander for the trip.

"What we were able to accomplish was huge," Vander Pol said. "We were able to get our secure link up and running, providing all of the other allied assets with everything we could see. For us to get and stay connected to the Navy, that's a huge win for us."

Navy communications Sailors flew on the E-3's first mission and worked directly with aircrew members to set up Link 16 capability.

"The Link 16 connectivity provides all the ships, aircraft and other coalition units the ability to exchange tactical data that enhances their situational awareness," said Navy Lt. David Hogg, a joint interface control officer with the Navy's Third Fleet, who flew on board the AWACS.

The link also allows the air operations center to see everything the AWACS radar detects in real time, he said. This allows U.S. and allied forces to share the same information securely.

Vander Pol said that the staff members of the air operations center were surprised by the amount of data that the E-3 provides.

"There was a huge gasp on the floor of the center when this massive amount of data they hadn't been seeing appeared on the displays," he said. "Everyone has to play his or her role in the exercise, and it was really good to see what we could provide."

Commander's Inspection Program
The 513th's mission doesn't stop at maintaining and flying the E-3 Sentry AWACS. Keeping nearly 400 Reservists at the top of their game requires training and vigorous inspections to make sure each task is being completed correctly.

Maj. Gregory Hutto, the 513th's director of inspections, oversaw a major overhaul of the Air Force's newest inspection system, now called the Commander's Inspection Program.

"Transitioning to the CCIP came with a huge learning curve," Hutto said. "We've been used to preparing for inspections from outside agencies, but now it's our job to be the inspectors."

Hutto and his team finished implementing the new program well ahead of schedule, a full four months ahead of the October 2014 deadline.

They also performed 9 inspections under the new program, checking different areas of the 513th and leading to one outstanding, three highly effective and five effective scores for the year, he said.

Block 40/45 upgrade
The 970th Airborne Air Control Squadron started a new chapter in its history this past year by certifying one crew on the newest modification to the E-3 Sentry fleet, the block 40/45 upgrade.

"Block 40/45 improves the jet's ability to identify and track land, sea and air targets," said Lt. Col. Louis Fournier, the assistant director of operations at the 970th. "It also improves the human and machine integration by using a modern, Windows-based system."

The upgrade to the Air Force's fleet of E-3s has been ongoing, reaching initial operational capability last July. The upgrade is scheduled to be completed to the entire fleet in fiscal year 2020, Fournier said.

The 970th's first crew finished certification on block 40/45 in August during a training mission to Colorado Springs, Colorado. Fournier said this crew will now be able to certify their fellow aircrew members, increasing the flexibility of the squadron.

"This certification keeps us on the forefront of the fight," he said. "We're now able to use all jets on the ramp and aren't limited to the shrinking pool of 30/35 aircraft."

The 970th's active-duty sister squadrons in the 552nd Air Control Wing are also undergoing the same transition, but are faced with more personnel turnover that makes training on the new system more difficult.

"Now we're able to help the active-duty squadrons with training and currencies," Fournier said. Once aircrew members are certified to fly a block 40/45 system, they must maintain currencies on both the old and new systems.

"It can be a challenge for our traditional reservists to find time for the certification," he said. "They need a week for in-house classes and then one to four check rides, and that can be difficult."

Despite the challenge, the 970th plans on having three full aircrews certified on block 40/45 by March and completing the process by August.

Even though the 513th as a whole wasn't tasked with a deployment this year, the 513th Maintenance and Aircraft Maintenance squadrons still provided nine Reservists who spent a combined 49 months deployed to Southwest Asia. The maintainers worked hand-in-hand with active-duty Airmen from 552nd, supporting the fight against ISIS as well as other mission in the region.

"The maintenance troops of the 513th have once again demonstrated their exceptional professionalism this year," said Lt. Col. Alan Priest, the chief of maintenance for the 513th. "Despite budget issues, the threat of inactivation and other obstacles, 513th maintenance personnel successfully supported all deployments, exercises, and any higher-headquarters missions that were assigned to the E-3."

The two maintenance squadrons also continued to work closely with the 552nd at Tinker to support the busy flying schedules for training and other local missions.

"Even with the E-3 flying some of the highest monthly flying hour totals in recent memory, the 513th maintainers played a key role in being able to still meet and exceed the majority of the maintenance indicator standards established for the E-3," Priest said.