CAROLINA, Puerto Rico—
First came the Category 5 Hurricane Maria. Then an underground wildfire. Then earthquakes. Puerto Rico has had it rough these past three years. For the Airmen of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard’s 156th Wing, who also endured a deadly airplane crash in 2018, the blows just kept coming.
Yet out of the wreckage is rising a more resilient wing with a more relevant mission set, one built specifically for responding to the kinds of disasters that frequently strike here and across the U.S. island territories in the Caribbean. When the transition is over in about 21 months, the wing will include ANG’s second Contingency Response Group, and a combat communications squadron designed to stand up emergency communications on a moment’s notice.
These new missions tie the 156th AW to the National Defense Strategy and lay out a challenging course to retrain its Airmen and prepare for a future without aircraft. The wing is getting new buildings and new equipment, along with training to take on a whole new mission set.
Contingency Response Group commander Lt. Col. Joelee Sessions, and Chief Master Sgt. Hector Garcia, the wing’s command chief, are excited about the unit’s new purpose.
The CRG’s primary mission is to open and operate an airbase in austere conditions.Lt. Col. Joelee Sessions, 156th Contingency Response Group commander
“The CRG’s primary mission is to open and operate an airbase in austere conditions,” Sessions said in an email. “The equipment required for that mission runs the gamut from basic living requirements like tents to base defense capabilities, pavement assessment equipment, and mobile operations centers complete with satellite communications and computer network systems.”
The combat communications squadron, which PRANG Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff Brig. Gen. Paul Loiselle said will be able to support a base of about 1,200 people, will also get new gear—“from handheld radios to satellite communications and everything in between,” according to ANG Contingency Response Functional Manager Jerry Stoddard. The squadron will be able to communicate via classified and unclassified networks, and “to communicate directly with senior leaders across whatever spectrum that might be,” Stoddard added.
The wing will have about 194 Airmen assigned to the contingency response group and 136 assigned to the combat communications squadron. Most will be part-timers.
Some Airmen will have to retrain for jobs in the combat communications squadron, while others may be allowed to transfer without retraining, said Col. Barbra Buls, vice commander of the Air National Guard Readiness Center.
In February, Buls said, more than 100 Airmen from the wing met with senior leaders “on an individual, face-to-face basis” to discuss opportunities, what the process of competing for those jobs would look like, and timelines and locations for tech school and other training.
Buls said all of the wing’s Airmen have the potential to convert, as long as they don’t flunk out of the required training.
The 156th Wing will also continue to contribute to the National Guard Bureau’s Host Nation Rider Program, for which 15 of its Airmen currently support U.S. counterdrug operations for U.S. Southern Command. That mission will continue post-conversion, though Buls said it’s not yet clear how that will be organized.
“We are completely committed to placing and expanding the National Guard Bureau support to that mission set through the unique skills and geography of the Puerto Rico Air National Guard,” she said.
Down, But Not Out
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria damaged about 85 percent of Muñiz Air National Guard Base here, punching a hole in the rooftop of its aircraft maintenance hangar and threatening the installation’s network. Even now, more than two years later, plastic tarps still provide protection from the elements.
“That one … little network that’s under tarpaulins and gets rained on and there’s buckets to collect the water, supports not only our entire network but our two [geographically separated units],” Loiselle explained. “It supports the Virgin Islands network, and … it’s the backup network for the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration], as well. So critical infrastructure and, hence, why we need to get this into a better situation and a better place.”
Soon, a planned $165 million renovation will restore Muñiz and support the 156th Wing’s multiyear conversion from its former role as a nonrated C-130 wing to a contingency-response and combat communications role that answers a critical need in the region.
Guard leaders here acknowledged that much of the base’s infrastructure was already in need of modernization before the storm, but more than half of the funds arrived because of the hurricane’s damage. As part of the renovations, the base’s network will be temporarily relocated while the old hangar is razed and a new permanent facility is built.
Muñiz’s new medical building/dining facility is “already pre-wired to be able to accommodate generators,” and future construction will include emergency power backup to ensure continuity of operations, Loiselle said. “Ever since I’ve gotten here since the end of August , it was Hurricane Dorian, then it was the Cayey wildfires—now it’s the earthquakes—so it’s been constant,” 156th Wing Commander Col. Pete Boone told Air Force Magazine in a recent interview at Muñiz.
Boone said the wing trains for emergency response efforts daily and works in concert with its joint operations center to improve and practice communication to ensure successful mission execution.
“The hardest thing we do is communicate, whether it’s internally here, or external,” Boone said. To improve, the Puerto Rico National Guard is planning “a tabletop exercise for hurricanes,” in the near future.
The wing is also seeking a director of psychological health, essentially a full-time social worker dedicated to serving Airmen and their families, and it sent chaplains into the field during the earthquake response “just to see how our folks were dealing,” he said.
Chief Master Sgt. Hector Garcia, the wing’s command chief, said his Airmen are taking personal preparedness more seriously. While he said that people underestimated the steps they’d need to take to survive the storm—in some cases expecting to barbecue for a few days before power was restored—“the island got shut down for more than a year [in] a lot of places,” Garcia said.
Lt. Col. Denny Lozano, deputy commander of the Wing’s mission support group and director of the PRNG’s Emergency Operations Center, said Hurricane Maria was a wakeup call.
“We must be very robust in our capability to … be able to continue our mission,” he said in a Jan. 18 interview at Muñiz. Because Puerto Rico is an island, the wing needs to recognize help cannot come instantaneously from outside. The immediate response must start at home.
While about $555 million in MILCON funds were approved for projects in Puerto Rico in fiscal 2020, $440 million of that was withheld to help pay for the border wall between Mexico and U.S. states in the Southwest. That left just $115 million for the National Guard here, said spokesman Lt. Col. Paul Dahlen in an email. The Puerto Rico National Guard had to hit pause on nine out of 10 planned MILCON projects, he said.
To move forward, Guard leaders signed design contracts for all 10 planned MILCON projects begun before the funds for them were reallocated, meaning that if the design work is completed and funds are restored in fiscal 2021, the Guard “can go through the bid process and start building these facilities,” added Maj. Gen. José Reyes, Puerto Rico adjutant general and incident commander for the earthquake response.
The wing is also waiting on funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which had reimbursed only $29 million for reconstruction as of January—less than 10 percent of what was claimed.”
Meanwhile, Guard leaders want to be prepared for future disasters. They say the territory is in dire need of its own Disaster Relief Beddown Systems, the tent-city kits used to quickly provide housing for first-responders during humanitarian emergencies.
After Hurricane Maria, FEMA and its contractors filled the territory’s hotels and the base became an overnight housing facility for military personnel supporting the response. Throughout the entire United States, however, there are only 20 such kits, none of which are in the storm-prone islands in the Caribbean, Loiselle said. “Our goal is to get two of those permanently located here.”
Implications for 1st Air Force
The 156th Wing falls under 1st Air Force, U.S. Northern Command’s air component. When tapped by NORTHCOM, 1st Air Force supports local, state, regional, and federal emergency service agencies.
Natural-disaster response “efforts translate directly into a homeland defense scenario that, you know, that we may see if we are ever to respond to a man-made event,” said 1st Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Marc Sasseville, who also leads the Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region.
Sasseville said in a phone interview that clear communications and situational awareness are critical in any emergency. “Being able to really understand what’s happening in the event is key to us being efficient and effective with the application of our resource center,” he said. “That awareness not only extends from the disaster itself—what dams are broken, what power lines are down, what airports have been destroyed, which seaports are no longer functioning. It also extends to what is the interagency doing [and], what are the state and local authorities capable of doing so that we don’t duplicate efforts.”
Being able to utilize Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the U.S. Air Force’s official auxiliary, is central to addressing this need, Sasseville said. “It’s a great deal,” he added, because CAP missions only cost between $120 and $165 per flying hour, thanks to their all-volunteer crews. “It’s pennies on the dollar, and they give us tremendous capability.”
Civil Air Patrol National Operations Director John Desmarais agreed. “Events like the hurricanes and earthquakes in Puerto Rico and other wings continue to hammer home the needs for interoperability both inside CAP and with our partners, and [further] developing and continuing our relationships,” he said. “It seems that with every new event we make game-changing strides, and as long as we continue learning and adapting to our mission environments, we will remain relevant.”
CAP continues to implement changes in response to lessons learned, including:
- Developing “a standardized deployable capability” for small unmanned aerial systems to help CAP better support search and rescue teams.
- Obtaining two WaldoAir XCAM camera systems to perform 3D aerial imaging for FEMA and others.
- Setting up a virtual Incident Command Team to augment CAP wings.
- Developing Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping capabilities to help CAP and better support the needs of FEMA and others.
- Coming up with “redundant strategies” to move data out of its sensors and collection systems.
While Hurricane Maria “didn’t really change” how CAP trains, recent experience has highlighted the need to think and train differently. “Wings have traditionally been evaluated individually, but now this spring we will formally evaluate two Regions working together, and plan to move through all eight regions every four years, while also encouraging other cross-Region one-CAP training opportunities to be conducted,” Desmarais said.