242nd Combat Communications Squadron aids in history-making Northern Strike exercise

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Michael Stewart
  • 141st Air Refueling Wing

ALPENA, MI -- The A-10 “Warthog” has been in service since the late 1970s and was used extensively during the first Gulf War flying more than 8,000 missions. It has excellent maneuverability at low air speeds and altitude, and it also has a short takeoff and landing capability. This aircraft has landed on dirt fields, riverbeds, old airfields, old highways and patches of sand. There is one place it has never landed ... on a U.S. highway -- that is, until now.

Two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs from the 354th Fighter Squadron, Davis Monthan Air Force Base, two A-10s from the Michigan Air National Guard’s 127th Wing along with two C-146A Wolfhounds from the Air Force Special Operations Command landed on a state highway on Aug. 5, 2021, near Alpena, Michigan, as part of Northern Strike 21, one of the Department of Defense’s largest reserve component readiness exercises.

The hallmark of the training was that for the first time in history, the Air Force purposely landed modern aircraft on a civilian roadway in the U.S. This was only possible with the extraordinary effort and ingenuity of the network and communications links provided by the 242nd Combat Communications Squadron out of Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington.

The squadron deployed a four-person team to support communications for the 168th Air Support Operations Squadron’s mission of coordinating and controlling of air support to ground operations.

"When the tasking came down from Air Combat Command, we looked at the requirements to see if we could support it," said Tech. Sgt. Jake Cornella, non-commissioned officer-in-charge.

"We determined that we could in fact support it with our Communications Fly away Kit (CFK) which can support up to 25 users. It’s business as usual for us whenever we support a customer.

"We always give our very best on every tasking, and during the course of the exercise, we had no idea what was taking place nor its historical importance until two days after we completed the exercise," Cornella said.

The Air Force has really put an emphasis on the Agile Combat Employment concept in which smaller groups of Airmen can deploy rapidly to locations with different degrees of austerity. These kits can fit in a few transit cases allowing teams to be lighter and leaner.

The different communications packages to choose from are scalable from two members upward to 50 people.

When the team arrived on site the first thing they needed to determine was where the ideal location would be to set up the Satellite dish. Most of the military communications satellites used are located close to the equator which can cause problems when setting up at sites farther north to locations like Michigan.

"Usually, we get to do a site survey of the proposed area we plan on setting up the satellite dish, but we didn’t have that opportunity this time," said Staff Sgt. Clifford Simpson, a radio frequency transmission specialist with the unit.

"Because the location of the satellite assigned to us required our dish to be at an extreme angle, I needed to first make an educated guess on an open area where I thought it might work, then from there, I could figure out my angle calculations to see if it was a good spot," Simpson said.

"It was extra challenging because there were a lot of trees in the area."

Simpson also explained why it’s critical to begin with setting up the dish.

"Once I determined where the dish would go, we then could start setting up all the other equipment. Everything hinges around that satellite dish; the rest of the staging is pretty straight forward."

One of the challenges of satellite communications links during an exercise is the amount of bandwidth allotted to the combat communications team by the Defense Information Systems Agency. Exercises are given the lowest priority by DISA and the team can and has even lost their satellite connections in the past due to resources diverted to a higher priority customer located somewhere else in the world.

Interestingly, telephone conversations are some of the highest priority network traffic for a customer. A simple phone conversation will push everything else to the side including webpages, file downloads and any other network access in order to let the call go through.

"As the lead planner for our team, I spent over three months coordinating the overall process of managing the resources and equipment required, finalizing customer requirements and transportation to our final destination to the exercise,” said Tech Sgt. John Morris, cyber transport systems supervisor.

"I really enjoyed doing the planning aspect of this trip and then seeing how it all came together during the exercise. Everyone involved received great training and performed tremendously. This exercise marked Cornella’s first time as an NCOIC of a team and he did not disappoint."

Exercises like this are designed to provide traditional Guardsmen a chance to build camaraderie with other unit members while gaining a more realistic feel for what it would be like on a deployment or real-world situation. When a team travels to a remote location several miles from home, it forces them to prepare not only for what is required, but also for what may go wrong.

Once in the field, the team has to work with what they brought. It’s not like you can order something online or head to the local hardware store to get what you need to do the mission. Everyone is counting on each other to provide the necessary communication links to get the job done. Without those critical links, the entire exercise is in jeopardy of being dramatically crippled.

"I learned so much about being prepared for anything and everything on this exercise and how all the teams interact with each other, from Power Production and Radio Frequency to Cyber Operations and Tactical Air Control Party specialists," said Airman Elias Newton, cyber transport apprentice.

Realistic training like this provides the closest thing to operational experience. The more realistic and well managed the training provided in advance of deployment or domestic operation, the fewer mistakes and the greater confidence Airmen gain.

"I learned more on this two-week deployment than I learned in three months at technical training school and I really got to know the people in my shop so much better."

The Airmen of the 242nd Combat Communications Squadron answered the call for support many times this year, from the devastating COVID-19 response to the 59th Presidential Inauguration. This squadron lived up to their Latin motto “ne plus ultra,” or “nothing more beyond.”