The New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing has a “no-fail mission” and must keep its F-16s on alert to respond to threats to the country’s northeast even though the local community has been hit hard by the coronavirus.
COVID-19 has created a “biologically contested environment right here, in our backyard,” which operates out of the Atlantic City International Airport. The wing has shut down most access to the base, screening all visitors, and even quarantining crews before they go on alert to ensure its F-16s and pilots are ready to “detect and defeat air threats,” and provide “aerospace and maritime warning for monitoring military and missile activity, globally,” the wing’s commander, Col. Bradford Everman, said in an interview with Air Force Magazine.
“The 177th Fighter Wing, like really the rest of the Department of Defense, we don’t have that opportunity to take a knee. We can’t just shut down for a week or for a month,” Everman said. “We don’t have that option. We have to continue getting the job done, because we have to continue defending America, our states, and our communities.”
Base restrictions ensure only those “absolutely required” for the top priority alert mission are within the gates. The rest of the personnel telework when possible, he said. Those on base are required to be spaced out and wear face coverings, which the wing’s Aircrew Flight Equipment shop has been stitching together. Common surfaces are cleaned so often, Everman said the wing “has never been as physically clean as it is now.”
Pilots who are tasked with alert shifts quarantine at home, following strict guidelines from the wing before they come on. The base does not have lodging facilities, but if the situation worsens they can make temporary facilities for pilots to live in without leaving the facility.
Usually, a pilot would be on alert for 24 to 48 hours and rotate off, but under the new system a group of pilots—known as a “hard crew”—stay on alert for up to 14 days, Everman said.
“That really makes that mission more robust, [and] reduces the likelihood of having an infection in those personnel that are critical to get that job done,” he said.
Outside of staying on alert, the base’s F-16s need to keep flying regularly so pilots can stay proficient, Everman said. The wing’s flying pace is largely unchanged from before the pandemic began, though commanders had to change how the units operate to meet that requirement. For example, pilots are split into shifts. One group flies for a week and then goes into quarantine for alert. Unlike Active Duty bases, many of the Guard pilots have full-time jobs, which can make the situation more complicated.
“They have a full-time job as an airline pilot, which as we all know, involves interacting with the public and traveling around the world,” he said. “How do we get them back onto the base and allow them to fly here and maintain their proficiency to do the mission without putting the rest of the population at risk? We do that through quarantine and by hard crews.”
While the local flying pace is largely the same, the wing’s longer-term plans have been changed by the outbreak. This month, the wing was expecting to take about 50 percent of its forces and F-16s and forward deploy to a range in Michigan for an Agile Combat Employment exercise, where they would set up a new base, bring in follow-on forces, and begin flying missions like they would in an austere combat environment. That exercise has been canceled because of the Defense Department’s restriction of movement order.
In October, the wing has another exercise planned that has become more relevant in the COVID-19 era. The four-day “mission deployment exercise,” will simulate landing in a combat zone, and practice the “ability to survive and operate” in a chemical and biological threat environment, Everman said. This previously planned exercise is aligned with an order from Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein late last month to develop ways to practice operating in these threat environments as the outbreak continues.
“And so you can be 100 percent sure we’re going to continue with that exercise,” Everman said. “And now we’re going to look at it, rather than as being in Central Command or in Pacific Command, or somewhere around the globe, we’re going to look at it as what if we had to operate here in a true biological warfare environment on the 177th Fighter Wing proper, defend it in three dimensions, and then go out and do our mission from our local base. And you really can’t write the script any better than in a biologically contested environment, which is the world that we live in day in and day out right now.”
Beyond these exercises, the wing has a deployment likely to Central Command, or another region, within the next 12 to 18 months that it needs to be ready for.
On base, the wing also just wrapped up a major upgrade to its fleet. Last week, its last F-16 received its new Active Electronically Scanned Array radar—a major initiative for the Air National Guard’s alert mission aimed at ensuring its aircraft can sense and track modern threats such as cruise missiles.
“So what it really does is it allows us to see further out, it allows us to see with more detail, it allows us to see things that are probably more stealthy or they have a lower radar cross section, … and so it allows us to … really do a better job of defending against both the air threat as well as the surface threat,” he said.
About 150 of the wing’s Airmen also are deployed across New Jersey to help with COVID-19 response, including field medical support, security, mortuary affairs, and working in long-term care facilities that have been hit hard by the coronavirus. As of May 8, the state has tallied 135,454 total cases and 8,952 total deaths.
The wing matched up requests for support with the most relevant Airmen on base, and canvassed volunteers for help. A lot of Guardsmen have civilian jobs in areas like law enforcement and other first responders, or they have family members at risk at home that don’t allow them to be activated for jobs like this.
“We look for volunteers, we can find Airmen that are mentally and emotionally prepared and ready to go do the mission, as well as matching up those skill sets with the tasks that we’ve been given,” he said.
These Airmen have been working regularly six to seven days per week, up to 12 hours per days, on a nonstop mission to help communities with COVID-19 response, he said.
“That’s what’s a little bit unique about this response. When you’re interacting with your community, you’re not thousands of miles away with a close-knit group of Airmen as a support structure,” he said. “You’re right here, you’re 50 miles from home. And because of your duties every day, you can’t go interact with your family. You have to remain in quarantine while you do your job, for the safety of the people on the job that you’re working with, the civilians that you’re protecting, as well as the safety of your own family. It’s a challenging mission.”