Back in the fight: Pa. Air Guard's 111th ATKW reaches MQ-9 initial operational capability

  • Published
  • By 111th Attack Wing Public Affairs
  • Tech. Sgt. Andria Allmond
The 103rd Attack Squadron of the Pennsylvania National Guard officially reached initial operational capability (IOC) with the launch of its first combat air patrol (CAP) here yesterday.

Of the people involved in the 103rd ATKS mission, almost all are Pennsylvania Air National Guardsmen, with the rest being civilian contractors that help maintain the mission systems.

"With the launch of this first CAP, we can now consider our 103rd Attack Squadron and remotely-piloted aircraft mission operational," said the current Air Commander of the 111th Attack Wing Col. William Griffin. "As National Guardsmen, we face some complications that Air Force unit might not face; but, like standing up the unit, we will work through the obstacles and remain an efficient and effective force."

A CAP is the term for an individual RPA mission.

"Basically, a CAP for intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) or persistent attack and reconnaissance missions is one aircraft overlooking one area for a specific time period," said Col. Michael Shenk, the 111th Attack Wing Operations Group commander. "My confidence is high that we'll be performing a successful MQ-9 Reaper operation. I'm excited for the Wing and the operations group to be able to finally stop preparing to execute a mission and actually execute the mission."

Fulfilling air operations from Horsham AGS again has been a long-awaited function for many of the Air National Guardsmen here.

The installation endured a Base Realignment and Closure that saw the departure of the last A-10 Thunderbolt IIs in 2010. In 2013, the 103rd ATKS received word of their new mission.

Little more than three years later, the 111th Attack Wing is now home to MQ-9 pilots, sensor operators and intelligence coordinators who control the remotely piloted aircraft, as well as a full complement of professional Airman that support the mission.

Launched from austere locations by deployed units, control of the aircraft is then handed over via satellite to the 103rd ATKS. The missions - whether they are surveillance, reconnaissance, attack or a blend of the three - all occur in overseas airspace. A vast majority of the time, the Air Force's RPA fleet is used for ISR, not for strike activity. Upon mission completion, the aircraft is commonly handed back over to the launch and recovery element pilot for landing, refueling, rearming and maintenance.

Not only is the operation of a remotely-piloted aircraft, like the MQ-9, a team effort, so was building the unit that handles the controls.

"We started off with one person; and we grew an organization that built itself up with the help of most, if not all, of the units on base," said Shenk. "Every person on base has had some hand in this."

He stated that the 111th Communications Squadron and the 270th Engineering Installation Squadron here proved especially invaluable in realizing the mission.

"The 270th EIS was selected to lead other RPA units as they convert or stand up," Shenk said. "If we'd had any other organization working on our infrastructure aside from the 270th, I don't think we'd be where we are today.

"The 111th Attack Wing Communications Flight superintendent and his team have just knocked it out as far the requirements for communications. Again, I feel if we didn't have the team we do, we wouldn't be where we are today."

Shenk also noted that the National Guard Bureau was instrumental in assisting with helping the unit obtain necessary resources.

But with the excitement of a new beginning comes unfamiliar and unforeseen challenges to tackle.

"The operations group, specifically the 103rd Attack Squadron, has always been the flying arm of the wing," said Griffin. "That arm was chopped off with the BRAC and now it's back--and that's big.

"Standing up this mission is significant for us and the Air National Guard for many reasons. Not only is the RPA mission considerable in itself, it also brings new dynamics, issues and concerns that we'd never faced before. As a wing, we're going to have to preserve the ability to remain flexible, anticipate barriers and work together to provide sustained air power to the combatant commanders."