Hickam Airman supports Special Forces in Philippines

  • Published
  • By Captain Darrick B. Lee
  • Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines, Public Affairs
As U.S. Forces continue their drawdown from Iraq, the military is continuing to support counter-terrorism efforts elsewhere around the globe. While Afghanistan remains the more widely-known theater of operations, there are other places where Airmen serve.
One such place is Zamboanga, located in the southern Philippines. Although the United States history in the Philippines dates back to more than a century, the emergence of terrorist groups in the southern part of the country placed renewed emphasis on the region since 2001. A lot has changed since General John "Blackjack" Pershing served as governor-general here at the turn of the century. Still, the U.S. military presence, while temporary, is a fixture in Zamboanga.

Nestled in Camp Navarro, home of the Philippine military's Western Mindanao Command, is U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force - Philippines. JSOTF-P is comprised of special operations forces from all four services, including U.S. Army Green Berets, Navy S.E.A.L.s, Marine Special Operations Forces and Air Force Commandos. Supported by a small staff, JSOTF-P's mission is focused on providing advice to the Philippine military and assisting them in their fight against terrorism. They are currently focused on pursuing the Abu Sayyaff Group (ASG) and Jemiah Islamiah (JI), two terrorist groups operating in the islands of Mindanao, Basilan and Sulu.

This is not an easy task in a country comprised of more than 7000 islands. Absent here are Hummers and mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, as military airlift takes center stage. To ensure SOF are able to move freely in the area, JSOTF-P maintains a small fleet of PC-12 and C-12 fixed-wing aircraft, complemented by Bell 214 helicopters for use in the jungle areas where U.S. and Philippine forces are collocated.

JSOTF-P relies on their Joint Special Operations Air Detachment (JSOAD) to fly and maintain the aircraft. JSOAD operates much like Airmen do at any other flight line, scheduling flights and ensuring the safety of air operations that support Special Forces. The unit shares the airfield with Zamboanga International Airport, which doubles as Edwin Andrews Air Base (EAAB), owned by the Philippine Air Force (PAF).

Sharing a runway means sharing the responsibility for flight safety. U.S. Airmen are embedded with the PAF, living and working near the flight line. Shouldering the responsibility for U.S. weather reporting and forecasting is Technical Sergeant Carrie Volpe, JSOAD's weather forecaster.

TSgt. Volpe's home station is Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, HI, where she serves as a forecast supervisor for 20 U.S. military bases in Korea and Japan. There, Volpe performed the same job she performs in JSOAD; she provides detailed weather reports to help mission planners conduct safe flying and ground operations.

In Hawaii, equipped with the latest meteorological tools at the 17th Operational Weather Squadron, her biggest hurdle was simply keeping up with the workload. With multiple airfield forecasts and weather warnings across a 113 million square-mile area of responsibility, the need for up-to-date weather reporting is constant.

When Volpe arrived at Zamboanga in September, she found a similar need. However, as guests of a host-nation airport, with limited meteorological equipment and a separate operating schedule, providing timely and accurate weather forecasts became a challenge.

"We used to receive periodic weather observations from EAAB," said Volpe, who is originally from Epsom, NH. "But sometimes, when EAAB reports weren't available, or their schedule didn't synchronize up with our operations, we had to give pilots the weather based on our best estimate."

That's what she used to do.

When an Air Force Special Operations Command Safety Team paid a visit to the JSOTF-P in October, Volpe saw it as a chance to let the brass know how to improve air operations in the southern Philippines. She recommended the purchase of a weather sensor, capable of providing electronic forecasts and sharing it with aviators world-wide. Not only would the sensor help the U.S. forces operating out of Zamboanga, but it could assist the Philippine Air Force and all aviators who need to know about local weather.
AFSOC liked the idea. However, the Air Force has an almost never-ending list of good ideas ... Many of them remain unfunded. With the cost of an average weather sensor running more than $150,000, the current financial picture cast a shadow over the prospect of adding one to Volpe's office.

Volpe's boss, U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Doug Carroll, in response to AFSOC's safety assessment, searched for solutions. Carroll serves as the JSOAD Commander, but at his home station, he leads the 353 Special Operations Support Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan.

"I knew the 353 SOSS had the equipment and capability," said Carroll. "With approval from Special Operations Command Pacific, the 353rd was able to rapidly deploy the sensor to the Philippines."

Shortly after Carroll's call, a brand new TMQ-53 Automated Observation System (TMOS) weather sensor arrived, escorted by MSgt. Scott Williams, the 353rd weather flight's NCO in charge. Shortly after he landed, the sensor was installed and working.
To Volpe, whose primary concern is providing the most accurate forecasts to pilots about to fly into austere conditions, it was the perfect gift, just in time for the holidays.

"The TMOS gives us a credible source of weather information," explained Sgt. Volpe when describing the sensor. "We can generate our own weather observations, and we can do it independently."

The TMOS collects data on current wind conditions, cloud heights, lightning, temperature, precipitation and more. In a joint special operations environment, where weather can have a severe impact on success, Volpe is pleased to have a little help.
The Philippine Air Force will be able to use the new sensor as they pursue the ASG and JI. Whether it's a combat resupply mission, a request for close-air support, or a casualty evacuation, their operations will benefit from having the real-time forecasting Volpe provides.

"It feels good to know that I can confidently tell pilots and aircrew what to expect prior to take-off," Volpe added. "I hope it helps build their trust in our support to them."

U.S. Government employees with a CAC-enabled computer can view current weather conditions in Zamboanga by surfing to https://afweather.afwa.af.mil/weather/met/met_home.html .