By Master Sgt. Jesse Lee , 17th Operational Weather Squadron
/ Published August 25, 2008
HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii --
A group of Airmen gathered at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, to mark the end of one era, and the beginning of another.
The inactivation of the 11th Operational Weather Squadron, June 13, 2008, marks the completion of the merger of the 11th OWS and 17th OWS, at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. The 17th OWS is now the only operational weather squadron in the Pacific, providing U.S. Pacific Command with "one theater, one forecast."
According to Maj. Corey Hummel, chief, weather branch, Pacific Air Forces, "The merger between the 11th OWS and the 17th OWS is due to Air Force wide changes brought about by Program Budget Decision number 720. PBD 720 granted the Air Force authority to reduce manpower authorizations in order to save money. By merging the 11th OWS and the 17th OWS, Air Force weather was able to save 16 manpower billets, as well as $1.5 million annually and fewer fielding requirements for the Air Force Weather Agency."
At the beginning of the merger process, the 11th was responsible for providing mission tailored, operational, and tactical level meteorological, oceanographic, volcanic ash, and space environment products for Department of Defense air and land operations in the Alaskan region. The squadron also provided headquarters staff support to the Alaskan Command, 11th Air Force, PACAF, and U.S. Army Alaska, as well as providing contingency support to the Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region. One of the most unique units supported by the 11th OWS was the 11th Rescue Coordination Center, the busiest such unit in the world, per capita. This included being tasked to provide no-notice weather forecasts to the 176th Wing and the 1st of 207th Aviation Battalion to conduct search and rescue missions as directed by the 11 RCC with a 10-minute contact-to-sortie timeline.
"The 11th OWS was really a hybrid unit, performing the functions of an OWS for the major Air Force and Army installations in Alaska, while also performing the functions of a smaller base weather flights in support of active Guard units within the Alaskan AOR," observed Master Sgt. Robert Williams, Operations Flight NCOIC at the 11th OWS. "Combining that with the austere environment we were forecasting for only adds to the difficulties faced by the 17th OWS as they planned to absorb our mission."
With such a wide array of responsibilities, there were many challenges facing the merger team, including support to other real world missions, such as NORTHERN SOVEREIGNTY Operations. During nine operations from July 2007 through March 2008, 42 Russian Tu-95 Bear bombers were tracked and/or intercepted in the United States and Canadian air identification zones in the ANR Area of Responsibility.
"I'm absolutely impressed with the poise, professionalism, and can-do attitude of the men and women of the 11th and 17th OWS who were able to execute the squadron merger while simultaneously providing flawless support during ANR's highest operations tempo since the Cold War," stated Lt. Col. William Carle, commander of the 11th OWS.
Merging these two squadrons did not happen overnight. The 11th OWS was a unique organization, providing support to agencies unlike those supported by the 17th OWS, in a geographic region that presents weather challenges unlike anything previously seen in the 17th's AOR.
The biggest hurdle to clear was convincing units previously supported by the 11th OWS that their support was not going to be degraded as a result of the merger.
Air Force weather doctrine dictates that OWS's will provide flight weather briefings to Air National Guard, Army Guard, Air Force Reserve, and Army Reserve units without a collocated assigned weather unit.
"Army and Air National Guard operators were naturally reluctant about getting their weather support via reach back from Hawaii," said Lt. Col. Kurt Brueske, commander of the 17th OWS. "In order to ease some of those concerns, the 11th and 17th instituted a program that allows members of the new Alaska region forecasting team to travel to Alaska, meet with operators, and fly orientation routes for a first-hand look at the terrain and mission profiles. This allowed the forecasters to gain an understanding of how important their support was to the operators, as well as allow the operators to meet the individuals who would be supporting them and develop trust in their ability to provide first-rate support."
Merely meeting the operators that forecasters would be supporting was not enough to ensure success in the merger. Equally important was to find ways to integrate the knowledge, experience, and capabilities of the 11th OWS into the 17th OWS.
"The squadrons' personnel as well as trainers and system administrators in Alaska and Hawaii were absolutely essential in not only combining curricula and training programs, but also in educating and standing up the first series of Alaskan region forecasters," said Colonel Brueske. "Without the hard work and dedication of those trainers and administrators, the ability to create and deliver quality forecasts to supported units would not have existed."
As the merger comes to a conclusion, the 17th OWS becomes the sole OWS providing support to the Air Force, Army, and Navy. Specifically, USPACOM ,United States Forces Korea, , PACAF, U.S. Army Pacific Command, Special Operations Component USPACOM, and U.S. Pacific Fleet at more than 115 DoD installations. At a moment's notice, members of the 17th OWS are prepared to provide support for military operations from the North Pole to the South Pole, the Alaskan panhandle west to the Indian Ocean, across 14 time zones and 110 million square miles.
"From hurricanes to blizzards, heavy monsoon rains to deep arctic freeze, we've got it all. For the true weather enthusiast, the 17th is the place to be," said Colonel Brueske.