When there’s no ATC tower, who controls the airfield?

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. River Bruce
  • Air Combat Command Public Affairs

In future conflicts, airpower will have to be generated from austere or “barebones” locations like retired or out-of-commission airfields, sites with no power and places with no runway.

This means standard airfield services like air traffic control and airfield management will look very different than they do today. Air Combat Command’s 53rd Air Traffic Control Squadron at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, is a tactical unit that fills this void, and they are training other Lead Wings to fill it as well.

After 30 years of counter-insurgency operations from fixed locations, the 53rd ATCS is attempting to meet the National Defense Strategy and Department of Defense shift to contested environments and competition with peer threats. This shift created a demand for the 53rd ATCS’ unique style of airfield operations and expertise for training Lead Wings as the owner of ACC's premier Landing Zone Safety Officer course.

In counter-insurgency operations, the Air Force operated mainly on established airfields that are maintained and supported by Airmen, contractors and government employees. Generating airpower relies on consistent airfield management, but it is not always available.

Contingency, crisis and contested operations directly impact airfield operations. In 2018, when Hurricane Michael hit Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, the base was left without an operational ATC tower. The 53rd ATCS filled the void, providing Tyndall with a mobile ATC tower and multi-capable Airmen with landing zone certifications.

This “light package” of Airmen are derived from the air traffic control, airfield management, and radar and weather systems career fields and can deploy to effectively “turn the lights on” and manage an airfield in an austere environment. Deemed “multi-capable” Airmen, they remain technical experts in their specific career skill sets, but are also trained to perform the duties of their colleagues. For example, a RAWS technician from the 53rd ATCS can technically perform landing zone safety duties and maintain radar equipment, all while wearing an airfield management hat—tasks typically separated by occupation at traditional airfields.

“In an Agile Combat Employment environment, when you're trying to operate aircraft from multiple locations, some of those locations may have gaps in airfield operations that we would need to fill,” said Lt. Col. Jeremy Gracy, 53rd ATCS commander. “We have mobile air-traffic control towers (Humvee attachable), and we can fly in and have our own power generation capabilities. Also, we have our own tents to operate in an austere environment and bring all the tools and equipment we need to start from scratch.”

The 53rd ATCS is shifting away from large, heavy equipment packages to provide smaller, light-to-medium packages to meet the emerging needs and force posturing of Air Force Generation, Lead Wings, and ACE by Agile Combat Support Airmen.

As ACC continues to certify Lead Wings, which are tailorable and deployable packages of airpower designed for contested environments, the 53rd ATCS is proving valuable in teaching other Combat Air Force units their tactics, techniques and procedures.

In July 2021, the 53rd ATCS operated from Avon Park Air Force Range, Florida, during the AGILE FLAG 22-1 exercise, providing portable tactical air navigation capabilities and operating as a mobile air traffic control tower.

The TRN-48 TACAN is a portable system that enables aircraft monitoring in an austere location. Typically, airfields have a similar system set up in a stagnant and staffed building. This portable alternative stands around 5 feet tall and enables monitoring in unstaffed locations.

During the exercise, the light package of 10 Airmen rode around in tactical vehicles while controlling aircraft for take-offs and landings. Avon was designated as a simulated austere location for the exercise, so the squadron had to take control of the airfield and establish radio and ATC capabilities before the aircraft touched down.

“Just as we could do in a contested environment, we took control of the airfield with no native flight line personnel and we made it operational,” said Master Sgt. Warner Paredes, 53rd ATCS air traffic controller. “When it comes to RAWS, ATC, and airfield management, everyone was doing everyone’s job. It was a true display of the multi-capable Airmen concept.”

Another example of the concept took place in late 2022, when the 53rd ATCS enabled airfield operations for a Marine Corps exercise at Twentynine Palms, California. On a flat desert surface near the camp, Marines set up 8,000 feet of aluminum AM2 panels to create a runway. The 53rd ATCS made the runway operational by bringing a portable TACAN and controlled aircraft for take-offs and landings, and performing airfield management duties to keep the runway safe.

As the DOD continues to prepare for the peer threat and operate in austere and contested environments, the 53rd ATCS is doing its part to ensure they and other Lead Wings remain ready.