Commentary Search

Operation Unified Protector integrated operations

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. James Dermer
  • 91st Air Refueling Squadron commander
Conducting air operations in today's dynamic environment requires a total force effort and no weapon system throughout the Air Force has embraced this ethos as wholeheartedly as the tanker community. While it is true the majority of KC-135 assets reside within the Air Reserve Component, it is the standardization of training and the one-team culture that enables all units to seamlessly integrate during contingency operations.

In March of 2011, a combined campaign led by NATO and numerous nations within the region began an operation to enforce a United Nations No-Fly Zone and ensure the protection of Libyan civilians from attack or the threat of attack. The operation which began as a US led effort quickly morphed from Operation Odyssey Dawn to the NATO led Operation Unified Protector. Non-regime forces quickly became aligned under a Transition National Council and set forward a path to remove their former ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, from power. In an effort to maintain its power, the Gaddafi regime used its military forces to crackdown on Libyan civilians. In return NATO orchestrated an aerial campaign to disable the regimes ability to attack its own people.

Due to the large geographic distances from NATO bases to Libya, combat aircraft required air refueling to extend their effective range and capability. Numerous NATO nations answered the call to provide refueling assets, as did the United States with its ability to fuel the fight. This essential mission does not reside solely within the active duty, but in fact is largely embedded within the ARC. OUP once again highlighted the fact our nation relies not only on its active duty Airmen but requires Guard and Reserve participation to fulfill this critical refueling mission.

Shortly after Libyan operations began, 19 units from around the US converged on a single base in Western Europe to form the "Calico Wing." Over the course of seven months, units from nearly every KC-135 ARC Wing sent Airmen and aircraft to participate in OUP. Even more impressive was these Airmen participated as an all-volunteer force enabling AMC to redirect active duty aircrews to other critical taskings without any loss of capability.

In addition to the aircraft, Guard and Reserve aircrews and maintainers brought a wealth of knowledge and experience that manifested itself with a 95 percent mission effectiveness rate. On the surface, this may appear an easy task, however, orchestrating this group required steadfast leadership from the Guard, Reserve and Active duty. Unlike many other current operations, OUP integrated KC-135s and Active Duty KC-10s into a single Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron all working together to provide the Combined Forces Air Component Commander the necessary refueling assets to execute the daily Air Tasking Order.

What really distinguished the Calico Wing from other operations was the turnover rate of its forces. Nearly half the aircrews cycled in and out of theater each week. To counter the effects of this continual turnover, the staff capitalized on sound processes and crew experience to rapidly indoctrinate and prepare for combat missions. In the end, the frequent rotation was beneficial as it prevented aircrews from exceeding maximum flight hour restrictions.

Ultimately people make the difference in any operation and OUP was no different. Leaders adapted to their environment and capitalized on the inherent capabilities of their situation. During Operation Unified Protector, leaders and Airmen proved the value of integrated operations and the absolute necessity of Air Reserve Component in executing our nation's strategic policy.