Units make history with Air Force's first homeland defense ORI
Three units representing each component of the Air Force made history here May 16 through 23 when they successfully completed the first homeland defense operational readiness inspection.
The ORI, held at the Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center here, was administered by the Air Mobility Command Inspector General on a trial basis, but it may help pave the way for future inspections, officials said.
"For the very first time, the U.S. Air Force has validated a unit's wartime capability to defend the homeland by fighting an enemy right here on U.S. soil," said Col. Greg Nelson, the commander of the Kentucky Air National Guard's 123rd Airlift Wing, which served as the lead organization for the ORI.
"That represents a major shift in the way Air Force (leaders evaluate) unit readiness, because it puts the focus in our own backyard, rather than a simulated overseas location where these evaluations are usually staged," he said.
The inspection was a total force effort, with the 123rd Airlift Wing representing the Air National Guard; the 317th Airlift Group from Dyess Air Force Base, Texas, providing active-duty forces; and the 70th Aerial Port Squadron from Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., contributing Air Force Reserve members and equipment.
As with traditional ORIs, this one tested the ability of each unit to mobilize Airmen and equipment, fly to a remote site, operate in a hostile environment, defend against enemy attacks, and redeploy back home, all while AMC inspectors evaluated every phase of the operation.
Unlike traditional ORIs, in this one the participants were tasked with supporting civil authorities while fighting an unconventional foe in the United States. In the past, ORIs have typically required units to deploy to simulated overseas bases and defend against conventional military forces.
"I'm pleased to say that all three units passed this new test with flying colors," Colonel Nelson said. "We are ready to perform our mission of theater airlift anytime, anywhere, whether it be in support of our allies abroad or here at home in defense of the United States of America."
The ORI scenario that played out in Mississippi required more than 300 Kentucky Air Guard members to establish operations in concert with about 175 Airmen from the Texas and Florida units, forming the notional 104th Air Expeditionary Wing.
All three organizations worked seamlessly to launch theater airlift and medical evacuation sorties across the Gulf Coast region, supporting U.S. Northern Command missions and civil authorities, while foiling multiple attacks by well-organized terrorists.
The inspection posed an unusually challenging environment because of extreme weather conditions and several eleventh-hour changes caused by the non-availability of infrastructure, Colonel Nelson said.
"We didn't flinch. We didn't whine. We didn't push back to any challenge, from changes in taskings, to changes in locations, to changes in facilities at the last minute," he said. "(With temperatures hovering near 100 degrees), it also was the hottest ORI the team chief had even seen. But we maintained a great attitude, we operated safely, and we performed our mission with a level of excellence that makes me proud.
"Even more significant, this inspection marked the first time that any Air Force unit has been wartime validated in support of the security and defense of the United States of America. That's huge," Colonel Nelson said.
Col. Dan Dagher, the 317th Airlift Group commander, agreed.
"The 317th (AG), 123rd (AW) and 70th (APS) are ready -- and now tested -- to meet the challenge, reduce human suffering and save lives," he said. "If an attack on the homeland happens, we will be the first responders. Americans can sleep better knowing that the 317th (AG), 123rd (AW) and 70th (APS) can provide defense support to civil authorities in the United States, and that the very survival of thousands of ... Americans rests on our now-tested ability to immediately respond and perform mass-casualty medical evacuations after a chemical attack."
Colonel Nelson said the idea for a homeland defense/homeland security ORI originated at the Kentucky Air Guard, whose leaders asked AMC to consider using the alternate approach because it better reflects the realities of a post-9/11 world in which homeland defense has taken center stage.
"Almost everything that an airlift wing would do in support of a real-world homeland security/homeland defense mission, whether it be response to a terrorist attack on U.S. soil or humanitarian aid following a hurricane, would be in support of a lead civilian agency at the federal, state or local level," Colonel Nelson said. "As a result, the overall command and control aspects are completely different from those of an overseas operation.
"So we took our plan to the IG and said, 'You need to evaluate us on this,'" Colonel Nelson said. "They thought our approach had a lot of merit, and agreed to implement it on a trial basis. A lot of changes were required to make this approach work, but the IG developed new scenarios to test the interoperability of Department of Defense, federal, state and local agencies in defense of the homeland. As a result, our ORI provided a unique opportunity to validate how we provide tactical airlift during an emergency in the United States."