MCENTIRE JOINT NATIONAL GUARD BASE, S.C. --
I remember my first McEntire JNGB Operational Readiness Inspection. I was fresh off active duty having just made the transition into a part time flying position with the 157th Fighter Squadron. It was supposed to be the last day of a simulated war…right about the time that the White Force really turns the heat up with the Ability to Survive and Operate (ATSO) simulations. Our flight of four F-16’s was fragged to support a strike package heading well inside a heavily defended target area, surrounded by several highly capable missile defense systems. This target set needed to go away rapidly and the only way our strike force was going to have a prayer of getting their bombs on target was if our four-ship of Weasels was there to clear the air of adversary aircraft and put our boots on the necks of the Surface to Air Missile Systems (SAMS). The threat array was so dense that we needed all four of our aircraft and all the weapons we could carry. It was the perfect “failure is not an option” sort of scenario.
Getting multiple, fully capable aircraft from several different geographic locations into the same piece of sky at the exact same time is difficult enough. Now add strategically-timed, simulated attacks and the fog and friction of combat into the equation. Sure enough, right about the time the aircraft landed from the first mission set of the day, the bad guys (in this case, White Force) decided to hit us hard with multiple simulated chemical weapons impacts. This forced the entire base into a defensive posture and a MOPP4 environment.
This is the point where the magic happened. The unique sort of “magic” that the Swamp Fox bring to combat operations.
Despite the adversity, the entire team managed to knock out sweeps for unexploded ordinance and pass the ball off to the 169th Maintenance Group so they could refuel and rearm multiple aircraft. While our 169th Security Forces Squadron defenders held the perimeter from ground attacks, our mission planning cell provided pilots with mission materials and 169th Operations Support Squadron Intelligence gave us a clear and concise combat brief. 169OSS Aircrew Flight Equipment and Airfield Management managed to step us all…despite the soul-crushing MOPP4 environment.
I often call “Time” the 4th Dimension of Situational Awareness…. because in our business, seconds matter. Since our four-ship needed to be in a specific piece of sky at a specific second on the clock in order to ensure our AGM-88’s hit the precise locations at the precise second; we just couldn’t afford to take off even so much as a second late. Right about the time the four pilots in my flight reached our aircraft, the condition changed from MOPP 4 to MOPP 2. At every other base I have served at, crew chiefs and maintainers on the line would have stopped to remove the suffocating chemical gear and then continued their work in relative comfort.
Not at McEntire.
Not only were they willing to spend another 20 minutes in gas masks just to get us airborne on time, they all had that 4th Dimensional Situational Awareness to know that time just was not going to allow that sort of pause. Ultimately, they got us all airborne in fully armed Vipers, which used the awesome thrust of the Viper’s engine to transition to the target area just under the Mach. (Civilians apparently get spooked when you go faster in peacetime for some silly reason….). After crushing the target and reminding the bad guys that America, and the 169FW is not to be messed with, I was able to slow down and reflect on what just happened.
People often speak in platitudes about teamwork, trust and being a “warfighter.” After seeing how the 169FW handled that last combat launch, I immediately knew I was part of a uniquely qualified and exceedingly rare team that exhibited the traits of an organization that valued all three of those concepts. I will never forget it. How many people were involved in getting those AGM-88’s placed squarely on the foreheads of those SAM operators? It was not just the four pilots that got to run the football into the end zone from the one-yard line…. I can assure you of that.
Maintenance had to ensure ready jets. Weapons needed to deliver the right weapons, 169OSS/ARMS had to ensure pilots were cleared to fly, 169OSS/AFE needed to ensure flight gear was certified and safe to use and our Post-Attack Reconnaissance (PAR) teams needed to ensure a safe operating environment. Our mission planning cell needed to ensure that adequate mission materials were ready. Data cartridges needed to be loaded perfectly because there wasn’t going to be time to figure it out airborne. 169OSS/Intel needed to provide us with relevant information and accurate threat assessments so that our tactics would allow us to come home alive and our crew-chiefs needed to get us all out of the chocks on time so we could meet our push time.
Each of those areas could have constituted a complete “mission failure” point.
It does not matter what specific role you fill within the team. I can assure you that your job is vastly important and those around you are placing a great deal of trust in your ability to get your job done. The youngest Airman on a PAR sweep could literally blow it for the whole team by not knowing his or her job and executing it well. Shoot, if our CSS and 169th Comptroller Flight teams cannot get orders and pay issues taken care of, half of our folks would not even be available to fight. At the end of the day, each position on our team has an extremely critical role in getting ordinance on target. At any point, ineptitude, laziness or even simple, honest mistakes can cause mission failure. In our business, failure just does not mean losing. It has the potential to mean that Americans do not come home. So, no matter what your role is, each function is mission critical, just as critical as hitting the pickle button and launching 500 pounds of highly explosive ‘freedom’ at the bad guys.
As one of your Viper pilots, I get the honor of running the ball across the end-zone after the rest of the team does the blocking and tackling for me. All of that combined effort ultimately gets reduced to the simple act of me hitting the red button called “WPN REL” in the cockpit. Trust me when I tell you that it is not the bomb’s energy that destroys enemy targets…it is the explosive energy of the Swamp Fox team that ultimately gets the job done. The folks in the jet just get to deliver your message. You place your trust in us to get it done right and not waste your time and effort. At the same time, we trust you all to set us up for success.
Trust is the foundation of any combat unit. It is a two-way street between commanders and those they lead. Trust means more than just having each other’s back. Trust means continually improving and consistently striving to be smarter and more competent at your primary mission set and your primary duty. It means avoiding the temptation to slack off, cut corners or coast.
Trust is an intangible asset and arguably one of the Swamp Fox’s most powerful weapons. Earn it every day and do not compromise it because when we get called up for the “big one,” that sacred trust among Swamp Fox will be the asset that carries us through whatever adversity we end up facing.
There is strength in loyalty, not numbers.
-Trent Shelton, Former NFL Wide Receiver