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Small Kadena unit, big Air Force job
Staff Sgt. Crystal Sheffield (right) and Airman 1st Class Amber Hoedebeck, 623rd Air Control Flight weapons directors, control a mission by using a Base Air Defense Ground Environment system at Naha Air Base, Japan. Kadena Air Base's 623rd ACF is in charge of commanding and controlling 85 percent of local F-15 daily training as well as real-world operations, providing overlapping command and control support with AWACS aircraft and providing primary support when AWACS is not available. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Steven Nabor)
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Small Kadena unit unique in use of Japanese assets

Posted 8/29/2011   Updated 8/29/2011 Email story   Print story


by Airman 1st Class Tara A. Williamson
18th Wing Public Affairs

8/29/2011 - KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- With a daily mission as busy as Kadena's, it's no wonder the smallest units can be tasked with the biggest jobs.

The 623rd Air Control Flight, or "Lightsword," is a command and control sister unit of the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron's airborne warning and control system, performing tasks on the ground AWACS members perform in the air.

On-board radar in fighter aircraft are in the nose and can only "see" forward and cannot detect or track other aircraft to the side or rear. AWACS and the ground-based radar used by the 623rd ACF provides pilots with information on other aircraft in a 360-degree radius from their position.

The 623rd ACF is in charge of commanding and controlling 85 percent of local F-15 daily training as well as real-world operations, providing overlapping command and control support with AWACS aircraft and providing primary support when AWACS is not available.

They also have a dual chain of command consisting of both the 18th Operations Group and the 613th Air and Space Operations Center at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.

"[The 613th AOC will] task us for any real-world stuff, just like Operation Tomodachi," said Capt. Vida Roeder, 623rd ACF chief of tactics.

The daily sorties conducted on Kadena are under the 18th OG.

"We have a three-fold recipe there," said Capt. Rockwell Entwistle, 623rd ACF director of operations. "First thing we do is help maintain readiness of the pilots ... through the day-to-day continuation training they ... fly, providing that [ground control intercept] picture and active control for [them]. Additionally we are postured to support the [Japanese Air Self Defense Force] for the defense of Okinawa in a real-world situation. Finally, we act as the host nation liaison. We literally liaise with the JASDF on a day-to-day basis. We're one of the first lines of communication between what's happening in the Operations Group [and] with what the JASDF are doing as well."

Lightsword maintains the title of "flight" due to their small numbers, but they have the roles and responsibilities of a full squadron. Even with its limited manning, the flight can even provide control for some F-18 squadrons and other deployed units that come here.

However, this flight doesn't control from the air traffic control tower as other units do. A tactical control operations team, made up of 10 unit members consisting of officers, controllers and technicians who provide battle management for the sorties, will receive a mission plan brief at their unit before travelling 20 miles to Naha each flying day.

"What's different about us is we actually control out of [the JASDF base in] Naha," Roeder said.

Because the Southwest Direction Center at Naha Air Base and its radars are owned by JASDF and only used by the 623rd ACF, the flight is a very cost-effective unit.

"Everything we use is actually Japanese owned," Entwistle said. "We use their radios, their radar, their radar scopes, their infrastructure, their buildings, everything. ... They're always willing to release radios and radar sites for our use, as much as they can; weather depending, things of that nature. They're very good and we have a good working relationship."

Entwistle also agreed Kadena Air Base is one of the busiest assignments he's been tasked with. It's a very high operations tempo here, he said.

Because of Kadena's fast pace, the captains agree Team Kadena members aren't aware of the unique situation the 623rd has, and most members are unacquainted with what their job consists of.

"We are small and a kind of unheard of entity," Entwistle said. "I think that's coming around with the control aspect we're picking up as far as aircraft control. Since we do have a large chunk of the percentage of the training sorties, I think the name is getting out there a little bit."

The 623rd ACF has many strengths as well.

As its joint interface control officer, Roeder manages links in a joint environment, working with Marines, Navy and the Army, especially, he said. The flight is also home to a "Top Gun" Patriot class graduate, Maj. Jeff Watts, 623rd commander, which means he was a graduate of the Army weapons school.

The flight also currently holds seven of the 18th OG's annual awards, ranging from Airman to company grade officer.

Overall, with exceeding expectations and overcoming so many challenges, it's no wonder "Semper Vigilantes," meaning "Always vigilant," is the flight's motto.

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