The 386th Air Expeditionary Wing has been pivotal in the battle against violent extremism since its activation in 2002. The wing’s primary focus is delivering decisive airpower throughout the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility in order to provide stability to the region, a job that currently encompasses three separate flying missions.
The wing’s traditional role in the fight has been providing tactical mobility airlift to coalition forces in the AOR. While this has been a steady, enduring mission for nearly 15 years, the start of Operation Inherent Resolve has brought new focus to the wing’s operations.
“We’re the busiest aerial port in the theater,” said Col. Charles Bolton, 386th AEW commander. “The bulk of the equipment and passengers that come to this theater come through us. The rotators predominantly stop here, and we move people to all the bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of this is due to the current fight, but we are moving a lot of equipment to support coalition forces throughout the region.”
The primary cargo aircraft the wing currently operates is the C-130 Hercules. The C-130 offers an advantage over other cargo platforms in its versatility and ability to operate in rough terrain.
“The airplane was created to do a tactical airlift mission,” said Capt. Benjamin Vail, 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron instructor pilot. “The primary reason that you’ve got the C-130 out here is because you can utilize the airplane in all kinds of places to do not only air drop, but you can land at dirt landing zones, which we’ve been utilizing. And you can go into short airfields. The airplane was designed originally to take off and land in short places, short runways, but keep that cargo high, keep that passenger level high.”
The flexibility of the C-130 has made it a true strategic asset for operations against Da’esh. The 386th AEW currently transports roughly 6,000 tons of cargo and 7,500 passengers per month to various bases throughout the region, approximately four times what it was responsible for at the start of OIR. The wing expects the demand from units engaged in the fight to continue to grow as operations continue to heat up.
The 737th AES is composed entirely of Air National Guard Airmen. Vail notes this fact brings considerable continuity to their operations and, coupled with the C-130’s tactical nature, significantly increases the squadron’s significance in the fight.
“The big thing about the Air National Guard is that as pilots, we don’t necessarily transfer to other units,” Vail said. “You can be Air National Guard flying the same mission, the same airframe for 20 plus years. So you’re going to have the same people doing the same mission, providing that experience. We have the capabilities to go into these combat environments and provide that support to those ground troops.”
The wing also hosts EC-130H Compass Call aircraft operated by the 43rd Expeditionary Electronic Combat Squadron in addition to standard C-130s. These airframes are responsible for a highly specialized, unique mission: electronic warfare.
“In order to deliver decisive airpower, we conduct electronic attack with our EC-130s,” said Bolton. “From a non-kinetic standpoint, they have played a significant part in the fight against Da’esh, they will continue to do so, and they’ve done it with very limited assets and with very few crews. It’s been very impressive to watch the squadron accomplish that mission.”
Compass Call aircraft employ a crew of roughly a dozen Airmen, including flight deck crew members, linguists, and electronic warfare officers. The crew jams Da’esh communications, introducing confusion in their ranks and preventing them from coordinating activities on a standard sortie.
“Any kind of objective that a group is trying to achieve requires coordination,” said 1st Lt. Christopher Westlund, 43rd EECS electronic warfare officer. “An analogy is like figuring out, ‘Oh, I want to go out Friday night with my friends.’ You have people trying to coordinate back and forth, where do we go, what do we do, how do we do it.
“We’re essentially making sure that that coordination doesn’t happen. All of a sudden you’re trying to go out with your friends and you can’t get a hold of X person, can’t get a hold of Y person, it’s likely that if you want to go out with your friends, you’re not going to be able to if you can’t communicate. That’s kind of what we’re there to achieve: a non-kinetic effect that can have real-life implications.”
The wing’s final flying mission consists of operating remotely piloted aircraft. Though the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper are the newest additions to the wing’s portfolio, it’s become a point of pride for unit members to be involved in direct action against enemy forces.
“This has always been and will continue to be a logistics hub, but we have found a niche here with our ability to bed down and support MQ-1s and MQ-9s,” said Bolton. “They have the dual role of performing (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and strike missions as well.”
The wing’s RPA unit is the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. They enable RPA sorties originating in theater by performing takeoffs and landings.
During most of the time an RPA is actually in the air, it is piloted by Airmen in the United States, explained Capt. Christopher, 46th ERS assistant director of operations. However, slight delays in the equipment used to operate the aircraft require pilots located much closer to the MQ-1 and MQ-9 airframes themselves to launch and recover them safely.
“The way I think about it is, let’s say you were driving a car,” explained Christopher. “You had it on cruise control but you couldn’t make any adjustments to the steering wheel for three seconds. It’d be kind of hard to drive straight down the road.”
Once the MQ-1s and MQ-9s are in the air, they conduct ISR operations in support of OIR. They are also responsible for conducting strikes against Da’esh forces, achieving kinetic effects against enemy forces.
“I like RPAs because I am directly involved in the fight every single day I come into work,” said Christopher. “We help form the tip of the spear here on base.”
While conducting these three distinct, critical missions might seem like a lot for any unit to handle, Bolton is confident the Airmen under his command are getting the job done and will continue to play a key role in operations across the region for years to come.
“I don’t worry when I go to bed at night because I know our Airmen are taking care of the mission,” he said. “It really is amazing to see how much we are doing; how easy our Airmen make it look even though I know they’re working hard. It allows me step back now and not worry about the current fight and try to work on the long term vision for the base, because we’re not going anywhere. Our mission will always be a mobility hub, we will always have electronic attack here, and we will always have an ISR platform performing ISR and direct action missions.”