TRANSIT CENTER AT MANAS, KYRGYZSTAN -- Twenty five thousand.
When you think about it, it's quite a large number, but to the Airmen of the 22nd Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron, it's just another day, just another mission flown and just another symbol of how they provide daily support to coalition warfighters.
It's above the rugged Afghan landscape where members of the 22 EARS go to work each day, delivering fuel to airborne assets operating within the area of responsibility. However, that isn't their only mission in the sky. The squadron also serves as a mobile command and control (C2) node, allowing for seamless and transparent C2 capabilities through the use of the Roll-On Beyond Line of Sight Enhancement, or ROBE, data link system.
Recently, 22 EARS refueling crews flew the ROBE system's 25,000th combat hour over the mountains of Afghanistan, providing critical communications data exchanges between coalition forces on the ground and in the air.
"It is significant 22 EARS and the [376th Air Expeditionary] Wing reached the 25,000th tanker mission and 25,000 ROBE hours within a week of each other," said Col. Brian Newberry, 376th Expeditionary Operations Group commander. "Both are vital to our 24/7 support to Operation ENDURING FREEDOM warfighters -- in fueling the fight and 'connecting' the warfighter."
ROBE, which was implemented by the Air Force in 2003 and has been active within the AOR since 2008, consists of two main datalinks, Link 16 and SADL.
"Tankers are the perfect platform for this system," said Jim Petrashek, Northup Grumman ROBE Test Engineer subject matter expert. "They orbit for longer amounts of time and can be re-directed by the Combined Air Operations Center to cover areas as needed, giving the joint force air component commander much more flexible C2 options and assets."
"Beyond hitting the 25,000 hour milestone, we have been able to peel the onion back on ROBE's capability this year to see how we keep eight to 12 coalition aircraft connected to the network, enabling faster response to support coalition troops on the ground in times of need," Newberry said.
In utilizing two different data link systems, ROBE literally connects manpower assets on the ground, which may not have effective line-of-sight communications capabilities, to other airborne or ground units. This allows for a larger and clearer sight picture of the battlespace, which removes seconds from the kill chain, Petrashek said.
In order to provide commanders and warfighters that critical sight picture, the team here relies on teamwork and integrated operations are to launch ROBE-equipped jets. Maintainers care for the physical systems, trainers educate the newer boom operators and ROBE system specialists ensure critical software upgrades are implemented and oversee other necessary adjustments.
The team, who humbly claims to do nothing more than a job they love, often learns of their success time and time again through front-line accounts. "A great example of ROBE's capabilities is how when an A-10 was setting up to support troops in contact," said Adam Simons, Northup Grumman ROBE Field Engineer subject matter expert, "as the pilot approached, he lost vital communication feeds [to include the feeds from friendly ground assets]. Then, all of sudden, the feed was restored."
This was due to a ROBE-equipped jet in the area, he said, and is just one of many similar accounts of how ROBE assists our warfighters, day-in and day-out.
"As the only unit providing this unique capability, the 22 EARS boom operators have pushed the envelope to increase our connectivity, partnering with Battlefield Airborne Communications Node assets, to give a seamless network 'coast to coast' across Afghanistan for both air and ground forces to connect to," Newberry said. "U.S. air and space power is dominant in the skies over Afghanistan. This connectivity is an extension of our critical air capabilities, extending into the deep valleys and mountainous terrain blanketing our forces, thus providing a lifeline to troops who need a datalink in times of need.
"Now, as we push toward the 30,000 hour milestone, 22 EARS crews will continue to emphasize their core air refueling mission even as they find new ways to increase synergy with this unique ROBE dual mission that keeps our warfighters, both air and ground, wired," he said.