As Veterans, we identify as part of a special community of men and women who have volunteered to serve our great nation. We further identify with the branch of service we chose, and even more specifically with our “tribe”—our “rate,” Military Occupational Specialty, or Air Force Specialty Code. Every military specialty has unique training requirements, performance standards, and often history and customs surrounding the job. For most of my 31 years in uniform, I held the AFSC 13B: USAF Air Battle Manager (ABM). That defined my day to day duties, shaped my career, and gave me a front row seat for the interesting times we live in.
It’s been said that air traffic controllers use radar to keep airplanes separated, whereas the ABM uses radar to run them together. That’s an oversimplification, but maybe a good start. The Air Force uses ABM officers to orchestrate and execute the combat air campaign for the commander using tactics and technology. I volunteered for the career field in 1996, when the Air Force was increasing school house throughput to bolster the ranks in this critical specialty. I was attracted to the duty because unlike some other specialties, ABMs are in demand everywhere the Air Force fights. ABMs must learn and appreciate the nuances of air-to-air combat, air-to-ground operations, electronic warfare, missile defense, search-and-rescue and a multitude of other airpower missions; only then deploy to support them around the world.
I reported to the 325th Training Squadron at Tyndall Air Force Base, near Panama City, Florida, in June 1997. The location was perfect for the task at hand, as a primary location for fighter pilot training with weather and overwater airspace conducive to a rigorous flying schedule. That dovetailed with the ABM syllabus: we’d be able to meet face to face with the pilots we were supporting to plan training missions and receive “constructive criticism” in person minutes after they landed. The mobile radar equipment we trained on was identical to what the USAF deploys to operational theaters, just set up on a more permanent concrete pad with robust power and environmental control systems to ensure reliability in the Florida heat.
The course (at the time) ran nine months, not including survival school and water survival training I completed in the weeks prior. We started out in the books, going from higher level command relationships and equipment before drilling down into very specific details about fighters, bombers, weapons, and automated command and control systems—those used by our forces and allies, and also those of potential adversaries. Like me, many of my classmates had an affinity for military aircraft and devoured the material. We did, however, have a few candidates that struggled, having been assigned to the career field without prior knowledge or even interest of the technical subjects we explored. This would become more of a challenge as we progressed to radar control of rudimentary, then more complex air-to-air training engagements. In fact, our class would eventually hit the “average” attrition rate, with four of our original twelve failing to meet performance standards and being reassigned to other career fields.
Most graduates at the time were assigned to the E-3 “Sentry” Airborne Warning and Control System, a 70s-vintage jet liner converted for the command and surveillance mission. I was no exception, and reported to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City to begin my operational career on that storied airplane. One thing I came to recognize and enjoy early on was the camaraderie, and sometimes hijinks, that come with the territory when your crew consists of up to 30 aviators with different backgrounds and perspectives. The other thing I came to appreciate was the importance of the “big picture” that our eyes in the sky provided to pilots, as well as to commanders on the ground. I saw this on my first operational deployment to Turkey, helping enforce the United Nations no-fly zones over Iraq, during a time when Saddam Hussein was still lobbing the occasional surface-to-air missile at our jets and being punished accordingly.
I cut my teeth as an ABM at Tinker and would go on to fly the E-8C Joint Stars and EC-130E airborne command posts supporting the Army on the ground (taking me back to the renewed action in Iraq and Afghanistan) and the much smaller RC-26B for the Texas National Guard, reconnoitering the impact of Hurricane Harvey and supporting counter-drug and border security missions. I also got to command a ground radar squadron and work in our Air Operations Center in Germany, orchestrating the daily air campaigns in both Europe and Africa while getting graduate-level experience in a variety of joint mission areas. As a one-star general, I’ve been privileged to still be flying and leading a battle staff of Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines on the U.S. Strategic Command’s E-6B airborne command post and finding the same rewards in the “crew dog” life that I did as a much younger officer. I still learn something new every time I step on the jet.
My time as an Air Battle Manager offered lasting memories: being airborne over Iraq during their first election day. Watching 100 or more aircraft on my scope squaring off over the Nevada desert in the world’s largest air combat exercise, RED FLAG. Seeing my name on the side of an airplane for the first time. Seeing the sunrise behind the San Jacinto monument from 6,000 feet, and seeing destruction wrought by Harvey on the Texas coast in the same mission. Most importantly: countless early morning briefings, long missions, and work hard/play hard deployments with some of the best people you could ever hope to serve with. I’d do it all over again without hesitation.
Until next time, Stay Frosty and Hold the Line.