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AATC helps California rescue C-130s go digital

Two MC-130P Combat Shadow tanker aircraft from the 129th Rescue Wing, Moffett Federal Airfield, Calif., taxi on the Moffett flightline. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Daniel Kacir)

Two MC-130P Combat Shadow tanker aircraft from the 129th Rescue Wing, Moffett Federal Airfield, Calif., taxi on the Moffett flightline. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Daniel Kacir)

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Airmen from the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve Test Center (AATC) here recently joined forces with members of the 129th Rescue Wing of the California National Guard to bring search and rescue C-130s into the digital age.

The 129RW is nestled in the center of the world's technology epicenter, but brought a version of an innovative communication format called Situation Awareness Data Link, or SADL, aboard its MC-130P Combat Shadow tanker system to test in the desert with the AATC.

Similar to the Link 16 format used by other Air Force platforms, such as F-15 Eagles, SADL is a military communications system that supports the exchange of tactical information between air and land assets in near real time. Operators can digitally access this information from command and control systems instead of receiving verbal reports and then annotating the information on paper. The system is already in use by A-10A/C Thunderbolts and some F-16C Fighting Falcons.

"The potential added from SADL to airlift operations is huge," said AATC Joint Terminal Attack Controller, Senior Master Sgt. Nicholas Lowe, who assisted with the SADL testing as a ground controller from the testing drop zone. "Combat controllers will be able to coordinate airdrops on call more easily because of the range of the SADL network and the accuracy of position reporting," he said.

According to Sgt. Lowe, threat data can be sent to airlift assets inbound to the drop zone in time for the aircraft commander to react, and combat controllers will also be able to refine release points to increase airdrop accuracy. SADL will enable controllers to maintain situational awareness on the locations of all aircraft within their area of responsibility and more safely sequence aircraft into assault zones, he said.

The use of SADL as a digital asset must still be proven in real-world applications. Although search and rescue is the 129RW's primary mission, it often involves low-tech--but courageous--live-saving actions. In conjunction with a high-tech communications system, many in the search and rescue community are hoping for more cohesive missions.

"When the 129th Rescue Wing responds to crises such as the California wildfires and Hurricane Ike last year, a significant observation was the need for a self-contained airborne network capability to facilitate digital communications between rescue aircraft, pararescue forces, and distant command centers," said Lt. Col. Steve Butow, 129th Operations Group deputy commander. "These rescue forces will no longer be constrained to voice only communications in their life saving mission," he said.

Sgt. Lowe agreed. "SADL is quickly becoming the defacto guard standard data link and adding C-130s to the network will allow the ANG and AFRC to operate as a more cohesive organization in CONUS and abroad," he said.

Also recognizing this need for digital airborne communications were participants in the Guard and Reserve Weapons and Tactics Conference (WEPTAC), which takes place annually at AATC in Tucson.

"The Situation Awareness Data Link was on the primary objective list during WEPTAC the past four years," said Maj. Jose Agredano, 129th Operations Group chief of tactics and 2008 WEPTAC chairman. "We were able to bring the major players together last year and brainstorm a walk-on solution," he said.

The service's need for the system, coupled with the 129th RQW's operational experience, provided momentum for generating a solution at WEPTAC. "The data link is one of the Air Force's highest priorities for today's joint fight," Colonel Butow added.

The 129th RQW was one of three units evaluating a more permanent SADL solution. The 129th, along with C-130s from the West Virginia Air National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing from Charleston and Air Force Reserve Command's 910th Airlift Wing from Youngstown-Warren Air Reserve Station, Ohio, participated in an Operational Utility Evaluation with AATC at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., April 13 to 17.

"The exercise was a huge step for not only this unit but for every unit that participated," said Tech. Sgt. Elliott Paige, 130th Rescue Squadron radio operator with the 129th Rescue Wing. He was the first 130th RQS RO trained on SADL and coordinated the SADL channels with the Western Air Defense Sector for training stateside and at the OUE.

"There were Reserve and Guard units working side-by-side to prove the interoperability of this highly capable system, and develop TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] and a working solution for aircrews operating this system," Sergeant Paige said.

After testing SADL at Davis-Monthan, 129th RQW operators left the desert with a sense of accomplishment and are excited about the positive impact SADL will have on future missions at home and abroad.

"Rescue MC-130Ps will serve as a digital gateway for other military aircraft and land forces during disaster response operations such as a Bay Area earthquake response," Colonel Butow said.

In the coming years, HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and the Guardian Angel pararescue weapon system will also be equipped with SADL. All three rescue weapon systems will have the ability to share digital information, which will enhance the ability to save lives.

"SADL will revolutionize rescue," Major Agredano said. "The possibilities are endless."