August 1, 2008 (by SSgt. Don Branum) - Instead of the Fighting Falcon's roar, the hum of a turboprop engine will carry the 174th Fighter Wing's weapon system of the future into the skies -- but the pilots will stay on the ground half a world away.
Weapons specialists assigned to the 332nd EFS check the munitions on a F-16 Fighting Falcon before a combat mission over Iraq on July 8, 2008 at Balad AB.
When the Syracuse, N.Y., Air National Guard unit returns from its current deployment to Joint Base Balad, it will become the first Air National Guard unit to adopt an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial system mission.
The MQ-9 is designed primarily as a hunter-killer aircraft, explained Lt. Col. Timothy Lunderman, commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron here. It can carry up to 3,750 pounds of ordnance, including GBU-12 laser-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles, and its loiter capability allows it to track a target for hours.
"We're moving forward into futuristic missions," said Colonel Lunderman, who is the deployment commander for the 174th FW. "The one way that we can keep our hand in the fight ... is that we transition to a future weapons system, and that's the MQ-9 weapons system."
Colonel Lunderman called the upcoming transition "generational."
"The airplane is a very symbolic thing because you can go out there, you can touch it, you can see it, you can watch it," he said. "When we move from the F-16 to the MQ-9, there's really going to be a generational change in mentalities. There won't be MQ-9s flying out of Syracuse International Airport every day, so there won't be the noise. There won't be the visual or physical presence of the aircraft anymore."
Almost everyone in the unit will have to be retrained because of the conversion, Colonel Lunderman said.
"The skills are transferable in the sense that you have to lean forward (and) you need to have an open mind," he said.
Pilots for the weapon system must undergo training that lasts up to nine months. Sensor operators will have to train for approximately four months.
"That's an enlisted position, and there's no equivalent job (in the 174th FW) today that clearly realigns to that mission," he said.
The wing will also need Airmen who can work satellite communications systems and perform imagery intelligence. Finding people to fill these roles will be a challenge, but Colonel Lunderman said he's confident the wing will find the people it needs.
One benefit will be a much smaller deployment footprint, Colonel Lunderman said.
"Once this (MQ-9) package is up and running, we'll be doing deployed operations," he said. "There will still be a subset of people who go down range to launch and maintain this system, but it's a significant footprint shrinkage."
Senior Master Sgt. James Davison, the 174th FW's Maintenance Operations Center superintendent, said he sees the conversion as bittersweet.
"It will be a sad day when the last F-16 departs Hancock Field, because with it will be many memories and some top-notch maintainers," Sergeant Davison said. "But in the Air National Guard, our survival dictates that we remain flexible and open to change. So if it requires us to take on a UAS mission for the unit to flourish and provide a future for the next generation of 174th (FW) members, then let's roll."
But the bittersweet emotion surrounding the transition hasn't stopped the 174th FW's Airmen from flying, fighting and winning with the F-16.
"Most everybody has other jobs that they're leaving at home, being in the Guard," Colonel Lunderman said. "Everybody wants to contribute to the cause ... so it's pretty exciting for us to come out here as our final (F-16) deployment and to really be at the tip of the spear.
"We are really excited to be here," Colonel Lunderman said. "I would be nowhere else in the world than right here right now. This is the place -- this is where we have to be. This is what we need to be here to do."