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Commander's Column

104th Fighter Wing, Westfield, Mass. -- Staying relevant is hard work.

As I walk around the base and speak to members of our Wing, I have noticed I am asked a reoccurring question, "Sir, why are we so busy?" The answer is not a simple one. It has to do with both the strategic changes affecting the National Guard over the last two plus decades and the local issues here at the 104th Fighter Wing to ensure that we are always relevant, reliable, ready and accessible to our customers. Let me start with being relevant in today's Air Force.

As the nation has moved more of its reliance on the National Guard and the Reserve forces, we have seen our unit play an important role in that strategy. Since the late 1990's, we have deployed our aircraft and people in support of major operations around the world and have fully integrated with our active duty partners, in a seamless relationship of combat capability and power projection. We have proven that we are as good, if not better, than our counterparts when called to duty. It does not matter whether it is our maintainers, fire fighters, security forces, services or logistics personnel deploying overseas, or our aircraft to Italy or Malaysia, we are very relevant and part of the national defense strategy and that keeps us very busy. It was not always that way. When I first joined in 1982 as a young security forces airman, the National Guard was not in high demand. In fact, some politicians and Department of Defense (DoD) leaders postured that we were not relevant to the fight. We were passed down equipment (other than our new, off the assembly line A-10's) from active duty and relegated to being the "Strategic Reserve" of the military. The phrase "Weekend Warriors" was used often and it was not a compliment.

During the early years at the 104th Fighter Group, a number of our Operational Readiness Inspections to test our deployment and combat skills had a final grade of satisfactory. Maybe the thought was, "Why push for better, we will not be called." The ops tempo was much slower in the early days and some wondered what the bigger purpose was for our Wing. I never felt that way doing my own job as a security forces airman, but at the time, the Security Forces Squadron was never tasked for any operational deployments.

As a Fighter Group, we deployed mostly for training and twice during the cold war to our checkered flag base. Other than that, a bulk of the deployed fight was performed by the active duty. We needed a change. Change or die was often stated by our Wing Commander, Col. Dick Platt when he took over...and dying meant being deemed irrelevant to the fight and our future as a unit in jeopardy.

The change began and leadership set a new perspective for our unit. Real goals and objectives were set to challenge us. Performance at the individual and unit level was the new culture. Over the next two decades, we began to build a culture of accountability and commitment to excellence, and the successes began to mount and we became relevant to the Close Air Support (CAS) fight as the go to A-10 unit That commitment to excellence continues today in our new F-15 missions.

Today's Air National Guard is now an even more a critical piece of our nation's defense and because of that, so to is the 104th Fighter Wing; we feel that pull of the operational mission every day. As we exercise our alert mission, prepare our people and aircraft for deployments to multiple Areas of Responsibility (AOR), we are fulfilling our critical part of ensuring that we are relevant to our customers; 1st Air Force, Air Combat Command and the Combatant Commander in the AOR. Without all of us performing our roles and training to the best of our abilities every day, we will lose the vital skills we must have to stay at the top of our game. We must always be a unit comprised of dedicated professionals who are committed to ensuring we are always seen by our key customers as relevant.

Last year, we relocated our flying and maintenance operations in order to support the runway reconstruction. The runway was old and getting worse due to the traffic of the civilian aircraft and the F-15 Eagle. It began to affect the Barnes Municipal Airport's relevancy as a viable, long term operation for aviation. This strategic investment was born out of a partnership of the federal, state, city and municipal airport working together to ensure the success of all who operate out of Barnes. These investments in our infrastructure, like the new parking ramp and our main hangar scheduled for this year, cause the ops tempo to increase, but must be done to help maintain our relevancy. For those of you who work for a private business or own your own business, if you are not relevant to the success of the business and to your customers...you or your departments may be outsourced or eliminated. The same approach is underway in the DoD and the Air Force.

Efficiencies are being looked for at all levels for potential cost savings. We must look at every aspect of how we do business...from being good environmental stewards and energy users to the domestic support we provide to the Commonwealth or the combat capability we provide to our nation. We must stay "top of mind" to our varied customers and be the preferred supplier.

So, what contributes to our ability to stay relevant? The answer is being reliable. In order for our Wing to be reliable in our mission, we must perform effectively in two important ways; on the individual and unit level. On the individual level, from the time we go off to basic training, we must be committed to learning the skills we need to be successful. These basic building blocks of skills carry forward as you graduate from technical school and come back for seasoning days or your first UTA.

You, as the individual, applying knowledge and skills you have been taught, and demonstrating your competency consistently, begin to help shape how your unit performs. Multiply this individual approach by a factor of 10, 20, 100 or 1000, and now you have a group that is committed to being the best it can be at all levels. The Airmen's Creed helps us to understand and feel that call of individual responsibility and need to execute to the highest level of performance. Reliability starts at the individual level and a group cannot be successful or reliable in the services or products it produces without it.
As a Wing, we align our groups and individuals by establishing a vision or mission statement.

Our Wing vision is, "To be the most respected Fighter Wing in the Combat Air Force," and we cannot obtain that without being relevant, reliable, ready and accessible. We test and improve ourselves through training and operational deployments and exercises. Without these events, we cannot know if we are reliable.

Each deployment we plan and exercise we go through is in addition to our day to day mission workload and adds to the ops tempo. It stresses the system and our people, but is critical to our ability to stay relevant. After our F-15 conversion we were busy learning our new mission and aircraft. It was because of this we moved away from our decades old practice of two Operational Readiness Exercise (ORE) and one deployment exercise per year. As an A-10 unit we needed to have these skills. Eventually, the Inspector General caught up to us and scheduled an ORI in 2015.

A lot of time had passed, the inspection criteria had changed, and we found that these previous superior skills and people who had the knowledge were no longer available. Wing leadership quickly committed to an action plan to rebuild our ability to be competent and reliable in these areas, whether we were evaluated by the Inspector General or by our own team. . . and then the inspection program changed to the new Air Force Inspection System (AFIS). We needed to change course again, which causes an increase in ops tempo.

The new Air Force Inspection System (AFIS) and the Commanders Inspection Program (CCIP) are the latest focus to help our Wing to assess how we are doing in first meeting, and then exceeding, the mission requirements. The difference between the old ORI and the new AFIS program is a focus on how we do our daily mission and activities, as the real building blocks to making us reliable. It is not based on the ability to pass one inspection every four years. Last weekend, the maintenance, logistics and personnel functions used the deployment to Malaysia as an inspection. They checked their processes and looked for areas of success and future improvement. These actions are another example of an internal initiative to gather feedback in order to ensure we are meeting or exceeding mission requirements defined by our customers and being reliable to them.

Lastly, being ready means that as individuals we are always trained and prepared to execute our missions. We become prepared through effective planning and challenging training, so when we are tasked to deploy, we know what to do and how to do it. I can remember that our OREs and deployment exercises were always so much harder than the actual ORI. This was not by accident and our leaders knew that if you train harder, when the real fight comes, you are more than ready.

Our pilots have to continually strive to maintain their proficiency in a number of areas within Defensive Counter Air and Offensive Counter Air missions. It's not easy with their schedules to always get the type and frequency of the sorties they need. They must fly and fight in the right formations and against numbers that are aggressive enough to challenge them in the battle space. Their debriefs are blunt and no holds barred. These are perishable skills and they must make the most out of every training event. The deployment to Malaysia will allow them to fly missions against MiG 29 Fulcrums and SU-30 Flankers. This deployment completes a vision planned by our former Wing Commander, Brig. Gen. Brooks, and former Operations Group Commander, Col. Lambrich to train our pilots to the next level. Our Alert team just completed the second internal Alert Force Evaluation in order to prepare us for the Alert Force Evaluation in the fall. This additional training adds to the Ops tempo. Without the pilots, command post, maintenance and security forces all training regularly in their roles supporting the aerospace controlled alert (ACA) mission, we would not be ready to execute the mission at a moment's notice and certainly would not be ready for our upcoming Alert Force Operational Assessment (AFOA) in July 2015.

As professional Eagle Keepers, our maintenance team must consistently be certified in a number of core skills to ensure they are qualified and ready to perform their jobs. It's the same all over the base. Our 104FW members in numerous AFSC's, all working daily or on the UTA, to improve their skills to ensure they are ready to respond if called by the Governor or the President of the United States. This Barnstormer commitment to excellence, dedication to the mission, and culture of performance does increase our ops tempo and keeps us busy moving from event to event, but is necessary for our continued growth as a unit.

So next time I am walking around base and someone asked me why we are so busy, I will respond with "just ensuring the 104FW is always relevant, reliable and ready for many years to come." Proud to serve with you.