WHEELER ARMY AIRFIELD, Hawaii – In an operations center on the slopes of the Waianae mountain range, teams of Air National Guard Airmen monitor pods of brightly colored computer screens. From their perch, these Airmen have a virtual view of the airspace in and around the Hawaiian Islands as they detect, identify and dispatch aircraft at a fast yet organized rate during air combat exercises.
It's high time for Sentry Aloha, the Hawaii Air National Guard-hosted exercise, and the flight line and aircraft operations hubs at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam are abuzz with activity. Here, however, in a cavernous, dimly lit, and windowless room in central Oahu, there's just as much work to be done, yet the atmosphere is more subdued.
Aside from the buzz of air conditioning and the spattering of radio chatter, it's mostly quiet. Air battle managers and air combat controllers are orchestrating air engagements of dizzying complexity as they monitor and vector some the U.S. Air Force's most advanced jets.
Instead of the bright Hawaiian sunshine that's afforded aircraft maintainers and pilots at JBPH-H, rows of computer screens provide most of the light.
Like at JBPH-H, however, where units from across the nation work with Hawaii Air National Guard Airmen, here, too, that cross-country teamwork is taking place. From Aug. 11 to 24, the operations floor at the 169th Air Defense Squadron at Wheeler Army Airfield was a scene of interstate cooperation as Hawaii Air National Guard air defense experts teamed with the Oregon Air National Guard's 116th Air Control Squadron to control the F-22 Raptors and F-15 Eagles participating in Sentry Aloha 2021.
"Many of the aircraft control squadrons who vie for the opportunity to come out to support Sentry Aloha don't have the luxury of a flying unit based at their home station to train with on a daily basis," said 1st Lt. Aaron Narvaes, 169th ADS air battle manager. "Sentry Aloha affords these units the unique opportunity to control a large-force exercise and be face-to-face with pilots in mission planning, briefings and debriefings, and the exercise being in Hawaii is no doubt a big part of the appeal."
The nine Oregon Airmen are part of a unique air control squadron posture called Control and Reporting Center (CRC). A CRC's defining capability is its mobility as the Air Force's mobile command, control and communications radar element. Sentry Aloha, with its permanently based systems and facilities, allowed 116th ACS Airmen to exercise air battle muscles without having to worry about mobility requirements.
"The intent of a CRC is to be a mobile and self-contained, fully operating control squadron," said Maj. Tyler Birman, 116th ACS air battle manager. "For this exercise, we're able to strictly focus on air defense missions or air-to-ground missions. An analogy I like to use to describe our jobs is that we're kind of like (football) offensive and defensive coordinators for airpower, and exercises like this allow us to hone those skills."
The idyllic conditions of Hawaii and what Sentry Aloha provides, as far as training opportunities, made crossing the Pacific an easy choice for the Oregon Airmen.
"It's always easy to talk people into coming to Hawaii," said Birman. "We get great exposure to full days of mission planning, full days of mission execution, and it's a great way to get to know other units that are out there that do similar or the same jobs."
Hawaii's sun and surf weren't the only draws. Oregon Airmen were able to experience mission aspects not ordinarily available at their home stations.
"The thing that we usually don't get is the debrief aspect of it," Birman said. "Because our fighters are non-collocated and physically hours away from us, the best-case scenario is we get a phone debrief where we can't discuss anything classified. Here, we are able to go from A to Z for each of the mission sets."
Real-world missions for the Hawaii unit don't stop even though large endeavors such as Sentry Aloha are going on. "The primary focus of the 169th ADS is always our 24/7 no-fail homeland defense mission," said Narvaes.
To meet both exercise and real-world demands, extra controllers have to be brought in.
"While support for Sentry Aloha offers critical training to our controllers, it also presents a manning challenge," Narvaes said. "Bringing on some of our drill-status Guardsmen and hosting augmenting units like the 116th ACS takes some of that burden away, freeing up our controllers to get that face-to-face mission planning and debrief time."
For Birman, his unit's time in Hawaii was a worthwhile endeavor.
"I actually went to air battle manager school with some of the Hawaii guys, so it's always like a second family coming down here," Birman said. "Anytime they'll have us, we're willing to come."