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Eyes of the Sky: A diverse team orchestrates CN24’s multinational aerial battlefield

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Natasha Stannard
  • 18th Wing Public Affairs

“All players, vul time”

“Cowboy, west group bullseye 228/89, 27,000, track west, bandit, two contacts.” 

“Good copy, Cowboy—single group, tracks out bogey”

“Cowboy, west group, maneuver drag…”

“Devil 73: status dead or alive?”

“Cowboy: 2 kills—affirm.”

“Cowboy copies kill.”

“All players, knock it off.”

For 1st Lt. Bex “Pitbull” McCoy, delivering information that choreographs an aerial battlefield sometimes feels like calling football plays or speaking a different language. 

“There’s a lot going on at once, but you get used to it,” said the 25-year-old Air Battle Manager (ABM) as she adjusts volume knobs while listening in on her primary radios and whizzing to her computer monitor to analyze RADAR scattered with orange, greens, purple, pinks and blues. 

With chatter of the “vul,” a simulated air battle, still in play, she takes a moment to jot a few notes in this unique language while aboard an aircraft that looks as though it speaks a different language too, the E-3 Sentry. The Sentry is an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) most easily identified by a 30-foot rotating radar atop its rear fuselage known as the rotodome. 

When in motion, the spinning dome sounds like a whale’s song, providing a symphony for the 15-20 crew members who operate the flight deck and conduct Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) aboard. More importantly, it provides critical data for team to assess and relay to surrounding U.S. and allied aerial assets.

As an ABM from the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron (AACS), McCoy works in concert with her crewmembers to deliver critical data throughout Cope North 24, a multinational exercise. This exercise provides six nations the bandwidth to work together to sharpen tactics, techniques, and procedures that strengthen allied forces’ collective capabilities. 

“Without the command and control and battlefield picture we provide, multinational teams would not be able to integrate or learn from one another as efficiently,” said Capt. Trenton Dickey, a fellow ABM from the 961st. “What the AWACS is doing is providing a bird’s eye view of the battlefield while McCoy paints the air picture to the pilots while they are flying at Mach speeds, allowing them to practice their tactics, techniques, and procedures with multinational partners, but while also keeping our pilots safely deconflicted in time and space.”

Knowing this information helps keep the multinational pilots participating in Cope North 24 safe. It also helps them gauge and build off of one another’s strengths. 

“When she paints that picture, it has to be as accurate as possible,” said Dickey. “Our scope is massive compared to theirs. The pilots just see what is right in front of them. They have one or two radios, and we have 25. We basically consolidate information so that they can make streamlined decisions that help them track, target, and engage enemy aircraft.”

By working alongside her Mission Systems Operator (MSO), who collects additional information as McCoy darts from radio knobs and monitor to pen and paper, she is better able to gather and process information for a constantly changing battlefield landscape with specific data points for a multinational team. 

Her MSO for this flight, 24-year old Senior Airman Nathan Diaz from Allentown, Pennsylvania, helps McCoy track data points for review after the exercise mission ends. This enables players to better evaluate how to best utilize aerial assets from various nations, building upon the entire Allied and partnered force structure.  

“It’s like coaching a football team--our scope is massive, and he basically fills in the gaps for her,” said Dickey, “You can see she has a lot to track while also communicating with the pilots in the fight. His role as a mission system operator is crucial to us; there’s a lot of data and communication that has to be as accurate as possible, and the operators help us keep it all on track.”

For McCoy it is crucial that she and Diaz, and the entire aircrew work as a team.

“On the jet, we have the same list of priorities, but focus on them in an opposite order to make sure all objectives get completed,” she explained. “MSOs know the system in and out, and ABMs train more for communications and decision making. We usually spend the day before each sortie planning out our timeline, each team member’s priorities, and how we can support each other when one gets overtasked. The missions can get really complex, and when there are a lot of jets in the sky relying on C2, it’s crucial to have two brains and sets of eyes on all the moving parts of the mission.”

As McCoy and Diaz tracked altitude changes, aircraft distances, types and formations, their Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) counterparts observed, took notes and shared ideas and experiences with ABMs and MSOs aboard the flight. 

“What we have is similar to the U.S., but how the system is used differs,” said Capt. Susumu Itayama, 602nd AACS Japanese Airborne Warning and Control System Weapons Director. 

Itayama and his counterpart, Tech Sgt. Ryo Morita, 602nd AACS Senior Surveillance Technician, fly aboard the JASDF E-767, the Japanese equivalent to the U.S. E-3. 

“We want to learn how the U.S. uses the E-3, and also share ideas from our experiences on the E-767,” said Itayama, who watched, shared with and learned from Diaz, McCoy and Dickey during the five-hour flight. 

“When we build connections like this between our squadrons, we can share helpful information that makes us all better. It’s a really great wingman relationship that we’re fostering,” said Itayama.

That relationship is echoed by the 961st AACS E-3 crews and the nine different positions operated by 20 people from various backgrounds who work together anywhere from five to 13 hours a day in the air.

“It’s a tight-knit crew. There’s just 150 of us [the 961st], and our sister squadron has 250 members, so it helps that, for the most part, we genuinely like each other, and get along,” said Dickey with a little chuckle. “It makes it easier to set aside differences and provide each other with direct and open feedback that is sometimes difficult to share or hear, but ultimately makes us all more efficient at our jobs.” 

McCoy echoed the importance of sharing with one another. 

“I learn something new from a different person every sortie,” she iterated. “Having such a large crew gives a ton of opportunity to interact with people of different backgrounds, ages, crew positions, career paths, and life experiences. The most significant benefit to me is never having a shortage of things to learn.”

According to Lt. Col. Shawn McNabb, 961st AACS Commander, a unique challenge of the AWACS is the size and scope of his crews, but the way he’s witnessed his teams work together makes that challenge easier. 

“As a commander, it’s always great to see people from different walks of life come together to make the mission happen.” said McNabb of the team of both enlisted and rated aviators.

“The strength of this team is its diversity,” he said. “It allows us to tackle the tough tactical problems that Cope North throws at us. We share ideas and listen to each other; this exercise is all about sharing, listening, and building better practices. Many of our Allies operate variations of the AWACS in their own Air Forces, and each of our partners have used this diverse crew to build innovatively to their advantage. At Cope North we can share those diverse innovations to become better warfighters.”