Air control missions can be conducted and coordinated from these portable operational modules which contain classified high-tech communications equipment. (Bill Phelan photo)
ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. - For U.S. ground troops facing enemy fire, nothing is more welcome than close air support; combat aircraft that can neutralize the enemy threat.
Controlling those aircraft on such a mission is the job of the Missouri Air National Guard's 121st Air Control Squadron, based at historic Jefferson Barracks in south St. Louis County. As part of the units' annual training requirement, more than 180 airmen of the 121st are simulating a real-world deployment to the Middle East from a high-tech encampment on the Jefferson Barracks parade grounds.
While the exact training scenario is classified, the exercise is based on actual events that are occurring overseas.
"Realism is very important so that we can be ready to complete our mission when called," said Maj. Wesley Colebar, of Kirkwood, the 121st training officer. "We might be asked to backfill for another unit or to take the place of active duty troops so we have to be ready."
As Maj. Colebar explains, airmen of the 121st are not air traffic controllers.
"That is a common misconception," he said. "We are tactical air controllers; that is, we control combat aircraft to intercept enemy aircraft and to support troops on the ground. We control both air-to-air engagements and air-to-ground engagements. We communicate with Air Force personnel imbedded with ground forces. That person would call to us for support and he would then control the aircraft intercept so it could literally mean the difference between life and death for those ground forces."
To accomplish their mission, the 121st employs a vast array of sophisticated equipment including a portable radar unit with a 240 mile range. The unit also boasts high-tech satellite radio communications equipment and generators to operate the equipment in the field. Under Air Force guidelines, the 121st must assemble their equipment and be mission-ready within 72 hours of receiving orders.
To add realism to the training exercise, equipment failures are part of the drill.
"We have to train for emergency situations so we simulate radio malfunctions and aircraft breakdowns," Colebar explained. "That way, if faced with a real emergency situation, our airmen will already know how to respond."
Colebar said the 121st also maintains a security element in the event of an attack on the unit.
A recent Air Force decision to decommission the 121st at the end of next year drew criticism from U.S. Sen. Clair McCaskill, who is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Military Readiness and Management Support. Despite that, Maj. Colebar said the 121st will train and operate just as if they were facing an overseas deployment.
"We still have a mission to perform and that's what we are going to train to do," he said. "The mission must be accomplished. I can't stress that enough. The airmen of this unit have performed amazingly. They are the best trained and equipped airmen we've ever had."
Airmen of the 121st will continue their annual training exercise through Friday.
For more information about the Missouri National Guard, please visit www.moguard.com and our social media sites: www.facebook.com/Missouri.National.Guard; www.twitter.com/Missouri_NG; www.youtube.com/MoNationalGuard; www.myspace.com/missouri_ng; www.flickr.com/photos/missouriguard; www.moguard.com/blog; www.pinterest.com/monationalguard/
The 121st Air Control Squadron of the Missouri Air National Guard is conducting its annual training exercises from a high-tech encampment on the Jefferson Barracks parade grounds. The radar tower on the right is used in the training and can be mounted on the back of a truck for field operations. (Bill Phelan photo)