Revitalizing the Squadron: The 81st RCS reactivates as an Air Control Squadron

  • Published
  • 1st Lt Savanah Bray, 53rd Wing
As a formal recognition of the hard work and efforts of the 53d Wing Airmen at Tyndall Air Force Base in the 81st Range Control Squadron, the 81st RCS deactivated, then reactivated as the 81st Air Control Squadron during a ceremony on September 23, 2019.
“This isn’t about a name change,” said Lt. Col. Derrick Iwanenko, 81st ACS commander. “Reactivating as the 81st Air Control Squadron was just the right thing to do, because our Airman are doing such dynamic and challenging work, like that of an Air Control Squadron and beyond.”
The 81st ACS, also known as WETSTONE, is the only active duty Air Force squadron authorized to perform Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) during live-fire air-to-air weapons evaluations for all DoD branches and partner nation air forces, as part of “WSEP,” the Air Force’s Weapons System Evaluation program.
With only 33 people, and more than half who are SrA or below, the 81st is executing nearly 250% more Command and Control missions than any other C2 unit in the Combat Air Forces. On average, the Airmen assigned to WETSTONE execute BMC2 to over 330 missions and over 4000 sorties per year. But the 81st did not always operate this way.
Since 2016, Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Dave Goldfein has shared that the squadron is “the beating heart of the Air Force,” and throughout her tenure as Secretary of the Air Force, former Secretary Heather Wilson, often said the expression, “Don’t wait for us.” According to Iwanenko, his Airmen took those words to heart.
“There was a time not long ago when morale was low, and we realized we needed to stop being confined by unnecessary parameters,” said Iwanenko. “Our Airmen are capable of so much more than what they were doing, and we knew there had to be more opportunities, especially to utilize BMC2. With that alone, no other orders by leadership, we took on the challenge of truly revitalizing our squadron.”
To overcome personnel restraints, the unit empowered and certified SNCOs as Mission Directors. This is allows experienced SNCOs the authority to give pilot the order to “fire” in complex Continuation Training (CT) missions and Large Force Exercises. This is unprecedented, as the Enlisted Mission Director position is not implemented in any other C2 unit. 
“We employ this ability to leverage their experience and offset our manning shortage,” said Iwanenko. “The intangible display to the junior Airmen of the squadron is the trust and confidence leadership has in the SNCO tactical abilities.”
To increase the effectiveness of F-22 training, the 81st developed an Adversary C2 Program, aka “KREMLIN Control.” This program provides adversary T-38 Talons with radar-like information that allows the pilots to be formidable opponents to the F-22, improving the training all-around.
To ensure the squadron’s Airmen maintain a high proficiency, they developed a homegrown Simulator Training Program, which is a robust training tool with scenarios that accurately replicate complex air operations, fighter tactics and communication standards. And, to enable AWACS and JSTARS units to accomplish hard-to-get C2 integration training, the squadron adjusted its operations schedule to include training with airborne C2 aircraft.
These are just a few examples of the influential and creative work of WETSTONE. Today, the Airman of the 81st are thriving. They are inspired by their work, in some cases, cancelling their plans for separation, and, when the time for PSC comes, these Airman are headed to CAF units with unparalleled experience and knowledge. Not to mention, the 81st is accomplishing all this less than a year after the Airmen and their families faced the devastation of Hurricane Michael.
One of the outstanding Airman accomplishing this mission is Senior Airman Mitchell Rivera, live technician for the 81st Air Control Squadron. SrA Rivera has been stationed at Tyndall for over two years; he was essential in Hurricane Michael recovery and is a prime example of the Airman-leaders in the 81st.
“I see a lot more missions being accomplished outside our primary responsibility of WSEP,” said Rivera. “We went from doing three missions a week – max – to two-to-three every day. We’re now involved in large exercises such as Checkered Flag, where we control upwards of 50 to 60 aircraft. As an airman, we get a lot more opportunities to expand our mission set and our knowledge.”
While the reactivation as the 81st Air Control Squadron is an important note of history, it is ultimately a recognition of the WETSTONE Airmen’s dedicated work to revitalizing their squadron, taking pride in their work, and providing the Air Force with the most capable, combat-ready force possible.
“It all comes down to this, we want to provide unrivaled command and control,” concluded Iwanenko. “That success and failure is generated by us, no one else. If I can promote my Airmen’s buy in from within, then we can truly provide unrivaled command and control. Because of the leadership, autonomy, and authority encouraged in these Airmen, we now have units that want nobody but us to do their battle management command and control.”