Five Years of Combat and Counting

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Michael Kem
  • 174th Attack Wing
Perhaps no other unit demonstrates our citizen soldiers' dedication to the war effort and highlights the Air National Guard's incredible experience level more than the 45th Expeditionary Special Operations Squadron (ESOS).

For 64 straight months the 45th ESOS, which includes Airmen from the 174th Attack Wing, Syracuse, New York, has continuously flown 24/7 operations as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, and Operation Enduring Freedom, amassing an incredible 42,000 combat hours and 9,400 sorties.

Beginning with a core group of 66 Guardsmen from 11 states, the 45th took what was a niche counter-drug platform and turned it into an inexpensive and effective success story for manned Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) in theatre. Using basic tactics they had first perfected in their stateside counter-drug mission, Guard pilots and mission sensor operators have expanded what began as a one year Request For Forces by USCENTCOM into a constant fixture in combat airspace overseas. The quiet professionalism of a handful of aircrew at a single location helped spawn the exponential growth of ISR largely responsible for the kill and capture of thousands of enemy combatants and the safe return of untold numbers of Soldiers, Marines, and Special Operations Forces.

The RC-26 aircraft was so successful that its model became the prototype for the next generation Project Liberty's MC-12. As a matter of fact, instructor pilots and mission sensor operators with experience in the 45th ESOS stood up the MC-12 schoolhouse at Key Field, Mississippi, developed its Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs), and trained more than 1200 active duty aircrew in just over two years. MC-12s now account for half of all ISR flown over Afghanistan, but in the words of one MC-12 squadron commander, "Project Liberty succeeded because it was standing on the shoulders of the RC-26."

Five years after the RC-26 first joined the fight down range, manned ISR has become an absolutely integral part of the ground and air scheme of maneuver for both conventional and special forces. As one MC-12 pilot said with conviction, "nothing demonstrates the Air Force's commitment to troops in harm' s way more effectively than having highly trained and committed Airmen in the skies overhead."

This all-volunteer force of core RC-26 aircrew augmented with additional Guardsmen and Naval aviators have repeatedly deployed to austere locations in a critical, classified mission they will never be able to discuss with their families or friends back home. Even more impressive is the fact that they've accomplished all of this in the face of looming budget cuts that threaten their program. Why do they do it?

In the words of the 45th ESOS Commander, Lt. Col. Scott Ritchie, "we press forward day in and out with one purpose; to bring our guys home and ensure the bad guys don't go home. We love this aircraft and this mission and are willing to pass up other opportunities and promotions to shake the hand of a fellow aviator completing his 300th combat sortie. And we smile at the thought of flying with that brother in all of the hellish corners of the world."

Guardsmen like New York's Lt. Col. Michael Lawyea, who has flown 353 combat missions and 1,421 combat hours, are rightfully proud of what the RC-26 community has accomplished. But don't bother asking them exactly what they do, because they'll just shake their heads and smile.