VOLK FIELD, Wis. — The Wisconsin Air National Guard’s 128th Air Control Squadron (ACS) unveiled a state-of-the-art tactical operations center that not only better prepares its Airmen for a deployed environment, but also offers an improved training environment for joint exercises such as Northern Lightning, during a ribbon-cutting and open house April 18.
“It’s been a long time coming for us,” said Tech. Sgt. Maurice Heckman, a weapons director with the 128th ACS.
The federal mission of the 128th ACS is to provide tactical air control, data links and data transfer in a theater of operations. Using radar control, early warning sensors and surveillance data, the squadron provides the theater commander a detailed understanding of the airspace. The equipment that the 128th ACS previously used for this mission — two CONEX trailers with four operating stations each — did not fully prepare Airmen who deployed individually to augment air control squadron missions overseas.
“You never saw our legacy system anymore,” said Tech. Sgt. Danielle Seitz, a cyber maintenance Airman with the 128th ACS. “When we were training on an old system, we would deploy overseas and you wouldn’t see that system. With this system here, I don’t think it’s going to be as much of a shock when we deploy because what you see back home when you’re training is actually what you’re going to see overseas.”
“What they’ve been able to do here is create almost the exact same environment that they’ll operate in when in theater,” said Col. David May, Volk Field commander. “So they have this repeatable, realistic, challenging training environment that lets them train as a squadron, but can also directly plug into the flying activities at Volk Field — whether large-force exercises or local units flying — it covers the whole spectrum.”
The new tactical operations center is also configured for 18 workstations, as opposed to eight — which allows the squadron to support more than one mission at one time. It also allows for simulated training, meaning the 128th ACS does not have to rely on actual air traffic at Volk Field to get realistic training.
“Now we’re in an open-room environment with all our workstations and consoles there,” Heckman said, “so now the crew coordination and talking between everyone on the crew is a lot easier, a lot more efficient.”
Beyond preparing its Airmen for deployment, the new, indoors, tactical operations center increases capability for major exercises like the annual Northern Lightning exercise at Volk Field.
“We can integrate the Marines ACS community into it, other Guard [ACS] units,” Heckman said. “We have a structured facility for them to operate out of rather than the tents we previously used. With how big Northern Lightning is becoming and the aircraft that are taking off out of here, operating out of the tents can be difficult at times because of the noise.”
“We’re modeling the ideal training environment to optimally prepare forces for what they’re going to see in theater,” May added. “This is now a powerful training platform and a support platform to fly an exercise for years to come.”
May said the 128th ACS already had designs on an indoors tactical operations center, but adapted their original plans once they fielded their new equipment ahead of their 2017 deployment to Southwest Asia.
“They became familiar with this system, deployed on this system and came back, and at the same time they were anticipating the facility needs and infrastructure and IT changes to have this essentially be ready to transition four to five months after they got back from deployment,” May said. “They came back with the real-world experience of operating on this in theater as they were building this to become reality. In true National Guard fashion, they made it happen much quicker than it otherwise would have, and all of a sudden here it is — and it’s fantastic.”
Despite its present location inside a building, the tactical operations center has functioned in a field tent before. Seitz acknowledged that the new tactical operations center takes longer to set up.
“I think that, over time, this will get easier for us as we learn better ways to pack it up, set it up and tear it down,” she said.
Lt. Col. Michael Western, 128th ACS commander, explained that the new tactical operations center also means the $3.2 million state-of-the-art equipment is not stationed in tents outdoors during Wisconsin winters.
“We tested that theory of necessity over the last year,” Western said. “From minus-60 degree Fahrenheit temperatures to multiple 10-inch snow dumps, we managed to protect the equipment — but this was clearly not the way to treat a brand-new system.”
Both Seitz and Heckman said the new equipment requires a smaller learning curve for Airmen accustomed to how standard personal computers function.
“It’s much more relatable now,” Seitz said.
“I think this is one of the better tactical operations centers in the air control squadron community as a whole,” Heckman said. “We’ve got a lot of hardware, a lot of dedication and a lot of man-hours put unto this.”
Western thanked Volk Fields civil engineers for their efforts, and said the work isn’t done for the 128th ACS.
“Again with Volk Field’s civil engineering support, we are embarking on a project to make up the square footage for the 60 additional Airmen we have added to the 128th ACS years ago,” Western said. “This will enable us to bring the squadron back to one location — this building.”