MIRGOROD AIR BASE, Ukraine – Western Air Defense Sector controllers are participating in Safe Skies 2011, a joint U.S., Ukraine and Polish event where Air National Guard pilots will fly engagements with Ukrainian SU-27 Flankers and MIG-29 Fulcrums and Polish F-16 Fighting Falcons – developing Ukrainian and Polish air sovereignty operations in preparation for the 2012 Olympics, 2012 Eurocup and 2014 Winter Games here in Europe.
Western Air Defense Sector provides a critical component to the United States homeland defense mission. Located in Washington at Joint Base McChord, WADS is responsible for coordinating all airborne alert aircraft in the western United States; its sister organization, EADS, is responsible for the Easter Air Defense Sector.
Safe Skies 2011 draws on the resources of the National Guard's State Partnership Program.
During the two week event, many airborne scenarios will be played out, where the Ukrainian Air Force will scramble its SU-27s and MIG-29s to intercept U.S. F-16C/D fighter aircraft, Ukrainian L-39 Albatros and AN-26 Curls, playing the role of either a distressed or hijacked aircraft that is presenting a threat to Ukrainian and Polish citizens.
The capabilities and insight provided by WADS will prove instrumental when the aircraft are scrambled. In these scenarios, the team of four WADS controllers will coordinate the U.S. fighters while Ukrainian and Polish controllers will work with their interceptor fighters.
"Every country's military defends itself – we are not trying to teach them how to do that – what we are doing is sharing the insight we have learned since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; we want to help ensure a tragedy like that does not happen on Ukrainian soil," said Air Force Maj. Dan Wrazier, senior WADS controller and a member of the Washington Air National Guard.
On day three of the operations, the WADS controllers have assisted in coordinating nine intercept engagements. They are quickly working through the language barriers with the help of interpreters.
Back home in Washington, WADS passes important information to the alert sites around the U.S. identifying potential airborne threats.
Once airborne, the alert pilots receive information on the aircraft presenting the threat or track of interest (TOI) and pass that information to the pilots intercepting the TOI.
In Ukraine, the process is very similar, with collaboration of the Ukraine Air Traffic Control and Ground Control Intercept teams.
The Ukraine controllers communicate with the air traffic controllers and the alert aircraft coordinating the engagement, relaying critical and time sensitive information back to the national leadership team.
As the partnership continues to develop, the depth of training increases, providing mutual benefits to all the countries involved.
"From the basics, the controllers here handle the intercept and controller process very similar to us; what is different is our unique forms of measurement – we keep finding ourselves converting the U.S. measurement standards of nautical miles (distance), feet (altitude) and knots (speed) into kilometers, meter and, kilometers per hours…which takes some getting used to," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Lonnie Talley, one of the WADS team and a member of the Washington Air National Guard.
Despite the small challenges, the WADS team has been making an immediate positive impact, and they too are learning while conducting these practice scenarios.
"Working with our Ukrainian counterparts is very fulfilling," said Talley. "They take the mission of homeland defense very seriously and are very good at what they do. The equipment we are using is a little different, but the mission is the same, providing useful and timely information to the pilots so they can mitigate any airborne threat."
Safe Skies 2011 will continue through July 29 and is scheduled to conduct more than 50 intercepts.
As the event progresses, the scenarios will become more challenging and will ensure the Ukraine and Polish Air Force is prepared to thwart any airborne threat in the future.
– Editor's note: Foreign aircraft designations used in this report – such as SU-27 Flanker – are the NATO designations for these aircraft.
Article by Air Force Maj. Matthew Mutti, 104th Fighter Wing