Alabama National Guard's historic 187th Fighter Wing "Red Tails" prepare to deploy


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F-16 "Red Tail" from the Alabama National Guard's 187th Fighter Wing.

MONTGOMERY, AL (03/11/2014)(readMedia)-- This spring, Alabama Air National Guard members from the 187th Fighter Wing, based at Montgomery Regional Airport, will deploy to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The wing's F-16C+ Fighting Falcon aircraft – the "Red Tails" – will provide armed over-watch and close-air-support for ground units in their area of responsibility.

Fighter jets and Airmen from Air National Guard (ANG) have deployed regularly for the last 20 years as part of the U. S. Air Force's Air Expeditionary Forces. However, this type of mobilization is the first for a traditional Air National Guard unit since Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Past deployments for Air National Guard (ANG) units have been of shorter duration, and, with a few exceptions, covered by a combination of equipment and personnel from two or three ANG units. Cooperation and burden-sharing among several units reduces the time away from home and work for any given Airman and minimizes what is often a financial burden on both the volunteer Airman's family and employer. The concept has worked well for the last 20 years, providing inexpensive, yet highly trained Air National Guardsmen to combatant commanders on a voluntary basis.

However, recent budget crises have challenged the U.S. Air Force, active and reserve components alike, to find ways to maintain high levels of readiness while continuing to meet its overseas rotational commitments. The expectation is that mobilizing and deploying a single unit for a longer period of time (planned for a six month period) rather than using several units to cover an expeditionary commitment will result in higher sustained readiness levels for more units. Any time a unit moves from garrison to a deployed location, training must be curtailed while equipment is shipped, Airmen are transported, and aircraft are flown to the new base. Since the mission is ongoing, the unit being relieved must remain in place, overlapping with the new unit. Minimizing these inefficiencies frees up time and resources for home-station units to continue training for the full spectrum of combat missions.

"That we're an ANG unit will be transparent to anyone in theater. For the leadership in place when we show up, we could be an active duty squadron. Other than the hardware that we are bringing in, we'll be the same," said Lt. Col. Ryan Barker, 100th Fighter Squadron commander. The 100th Fighter Squadron is part of the 187th Fighter Wing and was one of the original Tuskegee Airmen squadrons of World War II fame. "We've come a long way from back when some guard units were seen as flying clubs, and there were 30-day deployments with a swap out at the two week point. Obviously, this is one where we're doing a full-length deployment just like the active duty component."

This mobilization of the "Red Tails" has the wing's Airmen excited to once again serve their country in missions for which they have intensively train. The deployment order came with much less advance notice than usual, but all positions were filled within 48 hours. Preparing any unit for deployment presents challenges, but for an Air National Guard unit, efficient time management is paramount. When an active duty unit is given six months notice for deployment, they have six months to prepare. In a sense for an Air National Guard unit, that is equal to a 12 day notice. While the unit's full-time members continue their work, they are less than 40 percent of an ANG unit's manpower. The remaining sixty-plus percent are drill-status Guardsmen who train one weekend per month and two weeks per year. In spite of the time crunch, the 187th Fighter Wing has completed all training and medical requirements ahead of schedule.

The process of preparing the wing's jets for deployment has been a great success story for the "Red Tails" and the Air National Guard. Over the last several months, the 187th Fighter Wing's aircraft have been off-station, several at a time, undergoing systems upgrades. The new equipment includes a high-resolution display and a helmet-mounted targeting sight which will allow pilots to deliver weapons in minimum time with great accuracy – an important capability to reduce friendly losses and civilian casualties. The wing's maintenance personnel have worked extended shifts to get the jets in top shape for deployment, while continuing to support the necessary training flights for the pilots.

With necessary preparations complete, the wing is anticipating another successful deployment. This will be the ninth combat deployment for the 187th Fighter Wing since the end of Operation Desert Storm. While the deployment is a first for many of the wing's Airmen, others have served multiple times. There is never a shortage of Alabama Airmen willing to serve. The state has a high rate of National Guard members per capita.

"It's a privilege to serve with such a great group of Americans," said Col. Samuel Black, commander of the 187th Fighter Wing. "The men and women of the 187th never shrink from a challenge, and they always strive to display the same honor, integrity, courage and tenacity of the Tuskegee Airmen – the Red Tails."