Hellcats distinguish good from bad for military aviators

  • Published
  • By Lori A. Bultman
  • 25th Air Force

In their mission to protect and defend the United States from adversaries, military aviators need assistance determining if assets they encounter are friend or foe. The Hellcats of the 57th Intelligence Squadron are the experts who help aviation warfighters know the difference.

“We directly support the tactical warfighter,” said Lt. Col. Paul Harmer, commander, 57th IS. The Hellcats of the 57th IS provide the foundational intelligence, or “the pantry of knowledge,” to fuel information age warfighting.

“This is the information age. Our 5th-generation platforms require more data, and that information must be more precise that ever before,” Harmer said.  

The Hellcats are part of the 363rd ISR Wing that provides full-spectrum analytical and tactical support for everything from mission planning to battle damage assessment. But, for the most part, 57th IS personnel spend their time determining what is not a target.                       

“A large part of their mission is producing information on friendly systems to help identify friend from foe,” said Harmer. “The foundational intelligence we provide makes the mission happen and keeps aircrews safe.” 

The Hellcats provide this data not just to the Air Force, but to a wide variety of users, including foreign governments.

“We develop intelligence mission data for the entire U.S. air component – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, as well as for coalition and foreign military sales partners,” Harmer said. “Fifth generation fighters, like the F-35, are maturing, and other countries are buying them. When these aircraft are purchased, we supply a portion of the data for those aircraft. Our international workload is constantly increasing.”

The Airmen of the 57th are always searching for enemy tactics and assets.

“We are always looking for new things, upgraded things, new capabilities and software,” said Master Sgt. John Tolbert, squadron superintendent, 57th IS.

Locating adversaries’ new, or improved, tools requires a large amount of data collection.

The Hellcat Airmen use non-traditional intelligence, technical libraries, user manuals, extensive research and other means to determine what an asset is and who it belongs to, Tolbert said.

The squadron’s experts are a diverse group.

“We have engineers, scientists, analysts, physicists, aircraft maintainers and traditional intel folks,” Harmer said. “We have a diverse array of military, civilian and contract personnel.”

The data they produce is just as varied.

“We maintain and deliver data in 31 different formats to four different mission planning and targeting systems,” Harmer said. “We work with 22 different countries and 4,242 aircraft around the globe.”

How does the 57th help ensure pilot’s safety?

Tolbert said he believes the answer is procuring the right data, the right way, so the pilots keep faith in the products being provided by the 57th. 

“This is a phenomenal mission – and very unique for an aircraft maintainer like myself,” Tolbert said. “To have a real tactical impact, people have to be excellent at their job, like those in the 57th.”

The products created by the experts at the 57th IS are not always recognized by those who benefit from them.

“Pilots get into an aircraft and expect everything to work,” Harmer said. “It’s there when they get in. They don’t always think about where that intelligence data came from.”

Even though it might go unnoticed, the Hellcats’ hard work is important to mission readiness and mission success.

“Our goal is to ensure minimal combat losses,” said Harmer. “It is amazing the strategic level of impact that the Hellcats here in San Antonio produce. They are the ghosts in the machine. They make missions happen and help aircrews come home safely.”

The 57th IS was constituted in July 2015 under the 365th ISR Group. Their mission is to provide premiere signal analysis and foundational intelligence to Joint and Allied partners to empower spectrum warfare dominance, even in contested, degraded and operationally limited environments.