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Sentry operators keep 'eyes in the sky'

U.S. Air Force Capt. Neal Miest, 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron contingency flight commander and senior director, looks across the cabin of an E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft before takeoff on Kadena Air Base, Japan, April 18, 2013. Without the ability AWACS provide to perform air battle management, or comprehensive visibility and direction of practically all aircraft in the surveyed region, other airborne assets would be virtually blind to other aircraft in a skyward battle. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Maeson L. Elleman/Released)

Capt. Neal Miest looks across the cabin of an E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft before takeoff April 18, 2013 at Kadena Air Base, Japan. Without the ability AWACS provide to perform air battle management, or comprehensive visibility and direction of practically all aircraft in the surveyed region, other airborne assets would be virtually blind to other aircraft in a skyward battle. Miest is the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron contingency flight commander and senior director. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Maeson L. Elleman)

A U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentry pilot from the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron on Kadena Air Base, Japan, and his copilot fly toward a KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling aircraft April 18, 2013. With its command and control capabilities and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission, the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft assigned to the unit opens the crew's and Kadena's eyes to virtually everything in the air. It's this capability that allows Kadena and other Air Force assets to project superior force for any contingency. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Maeson L. Elleman/Released)

An E-3 Sentry pilot from the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron on Kadena Air Base, Japan, and his copilot fly toward a KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling aircraft April 18, 2013. With its command and control capabilities and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission, the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft assigned to the unit opens the crew's and Kadena AB's eyes to virtually everything in the air. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Maeson L. Elleman)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan (AFNS) -- In the quiet darkness surrounding the flightline here, the awaiting aircraft roars to life with an escalated screech, and cool air rushes to fill the newly-lit cabin.

As the chill meets the lingering humid air within the aircraft, a smoke-like fog diffuses into the nooks and crevices around the computer stations and throughout the cockpit.

While it sounds like a mysterious and menacing science fiction movie, this is a commonplace occurrence for the E-3 Sentry crew from the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron.

Once the airborne warning and control system takes toward the horizon and the dense fog begins to disperse, the cabin isn't the only thing that becomes more visible to the crew, but rather the entire encompassing airspace.

With its command and control capabilities and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission, the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft assigned to the unit opens the crew's and Kadena AB's eyes to virtually everything in the air. It's this capability that allows Kadena AB and other Air Force assets to project superior force for any contingency.

"If a contingency kicks off in the area, we're the eyes in the sky," said Maj. Cliff King, the 961st AACS electronic combat officer. "It's important to have AWACS in the sky for protection of our assets and allies in the region."

Operating as the largest overseas combat wing, Kadena AB hosts multiple airframes ranging from F-15 Eagles to HH-60G Pave Hawk search and rescue helicopters.

However, AWACS crews provide essential air battle management and comprehensive information on visibility and direction of practically all aircraft in the region. Without this ability, all Air Force airborne units would be blind to other aircraft in the battlespace.

Lt. Col. Trey Coleman, the 961st AACS director of operations, said that capability is something that sets the Air Force apart from other nations.

"I think that air battle management is a direct correlate to the rise of American air power since the Vietnam War," Coleman said. "It's one of those integral things that makes American air power unique and makes it the best in the world."

Since its establishment here more than a decade ago, the 961st AACS has provided unwavering and unmatched air battle management in the Pacific area of responsibility.

There are 32 Sentries currently in the Air Force inventory. Air Combat Command hosts 27 E-3s at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., while Pacific Air Forces features four of the aircraft between Kadena AB and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

However, Coleman, who's been on Kadena AB since September last year, said its expansive mission and strategic location make Kadena one of the most important bases for deterring conflict in the region.

"I believe Kadena AB is the best and most important place in the world to conduct air battle management," Coleman said. "In today's geo-strategic context in the Pacific coupled with the downsizing of our fleet, nowhere else is it more important to have effective and efficient ABM."

Though the 961st AACS has only claimed the iconic "ZZ" tail codes of the 18th Wing since 1991, the squadron hosts a lineage as the 61st Bombardment Squadron commissioned in 1940, which predates those of its fellow Sentry-laden sister units.

Despite altering its mission and equipment since it began in World War II to the advanced systems it boasts now, Coleman said the equipment isn't what gives American Airmen the deciding advantage.

Rather, he said, it's the legacy preceding the formation of the Air Force, exemplified by Medal of Honor recipients and predecessors in training and command.

"Our technology is fantastic, but it'll be out-aced in time," he said. "What we bring to the table as American Airmen is a corporate wealth of knowledge that spans all the way back to (retired Brig. Gen.) Billy Mitchell and the Air Corps Tactical School."

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