Mothership

Image: US Air Force

The following story was written by Saku. This piece is a featured entry from The Art of the Future Project’s “Third Offset” war-art challenge.  Saku is a three-time finalist for the project’s contest. Going Deep was a finalist in the “After the War” contest. The Indian Defense was a finalist in the project’s contest calling for stories exploring conflict in space during the 2090s and Pacific Plunged Into The Abyss was a finalist in a contest depicting a news account from the outbreak of a future “Great War.”

Date: 13 August 2022,

To: Secretary of the Air Force Ridgewell

From: Air Force NSC Liaison Colonel Desmond

RE: Presidential Unit Citations

Mr. Secretary,

The President has authorized Presidential Unit Citations for the 552nd Air Control Wing out of Tinker AFB, and the 4469th Operational Readiness Group out of Dyess AFB. These unit citations were authorized for their actions in the European Theater of Operations earlier this year during Operation Dominant Fury (ODF). This memo provides a summary of the units receiving the awards.

For your background, the 552nd ACW E-3Cs sent to Europe had been secretly upgraded, providing cutting-edge capabilities. First was the full integration of Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) technology, allowing their aircraft to move data between any aircraft, satellite, or ground sensor in NATO.

The second was the installation of advanced artificial intelligence software to manage many of the responsibilities for the Joint Command and Control, Battle Management, and Wide Area Surveillance systems found in the earlier Block 40/45 aircraft. This allowed for advanced human-machine collaboration to direct the battlespace, exponentially improving situational awareness and reaction time, while lowering the number of crew dedicated to those systems.

This allowed several crew stations to be re-purposed to airborne Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) drone pilot stations. It had been anticipated in an electronically denied environment, drone operators in the United States would be cut off from UAVs/UCAVs relying on C2 via satellite feeds. Placing drone pilots in AWACS allowed them to operate UCAV’s in a line-of-sight mode, or near line-of-sight mode through BACN enabled Global Hawks. Four pilot-control stations were added to each Block 60 aircraft, with the ability of a pilot to direct multiple UCAVs at a time if needed. The pilots could also program the drones for autonomous defense of specific sectors.

Many of the details on the 4469th Operational Readiness Group (ORG) remain classified. The 4469th was originally developed due to a PACOM urgent operational need to address the distances involved for tactical aviation in a China scenario. The program was managed by Big Safari and bypassed normal acquisition channels.

Twenty used Boeing 747-400ER freighters acquired from the commercial market and subsequently retrofitted. This included adding aerial refueling capability, a cargo management system to hold and deploy Nimble drones, and the installation of a sliding launch ramp. The aircraft were renamed C-7s. Fifteen were designed as Motherships, and the other five were used as test beds or actual freighters to bulk transport drones and supplies to deployment locations.

Each Mothership carries 12 Nimble UCAVs. Relatively slow, expendable, and with good range and loitering capability, each Nimble has four hard points for ordinance, and folding wings in order to fit within the 6x3x3 meter launch frame. The most common configuration for the Nimble is three AMRAAMs and one ASRAAM for Combat Air Patrol (CAP); the aircraft could be prepackaged with several other options, including HARM-ER, JASSM, JDAM, jamming pods, or TALDs.

Extensive experimentation at Red Flag with the 552nd resulted in the development of entirely new air combat capabilities, starting with a significant surge capability in air combat power to any point on the globe. Two C-7s, after flying directly from CONUS, could effectively deploy 24 aircraft armed with long-range air-to-air missiles.

The culminating air battle of ODF, which took place over Western Poland on 15 May 2022, resulted in several air combat “firsts.”

  • Drone operators on AWACS personally directed Nimble UCAVs in air-to-air combat, recording kills. This is the first time drone operators, operating from an AWACS aircraft, directed unmanned aircraft in air-to-air combat, resulting in losses to the enemy.
  • This was the first time “unarmed” aircraft were credited with air combat kills due to their crews piloting UCAVs in combat.
  • First use of the C-7 Mothership / Nimble UCAV combination in a combat situation.
  • Manned F-15Cs with full AMRAAM loads were slaved on two occasions to AWACS operators and used as arsenal ships.
  • Nimble UCAVs, having temporarily lost their data connections to the AWACS due to jamming, shifted to autonomous mode, and defended preprogrammed sectors, recording multiple air-to-air kills. This is the first time an AI controlled airframe shot down a manned aircraft. (It should be noted Air Combat Command did not credit these kills to specific pilots or 552nd)
  • AWACS operators took remote control of a ground-based multi-mission launcher battery loaded with SM-6s, and successfully shot down three aircraft with AWACS-directed ground missiles.
  • AWACS operators on one occasion directed the flight of a set of Nimble drones, handed off control to a pilot of a manned fighter in a wingman role, and then later resumed control of the UCAVs once the manned aircraft was bingo fuel.
  • AWACS crews directed F-15C & Eurofighter / F-22 combinations whereas the F-15Cs with their superior radar would identify Russian fighters at long range, which were then engaged by non-radiating F-22s, or Nimble drones, in an ambush role.
  • Manned and unmanned aircraft fought in cooperative air-to-air engagements.

The NSC has authorized the Air Force to make the announcement of the unit citations. You will find the citations for each unit attached to this memo. All references of the 4469th connection to Big Safari have been scrubbed from products cleared for public release. The Secretary’s PAO office has already been directed to prepare a statement from you and General Cleary for release to the public when the citations are issued.

V/R

Col. Desmond


PERMANENT ORDER 113-14

552nd Air Control Wing

Announcement is made of the following award:

Presidential Unit Citation

Period of Service: 7 May 2022 – 23 May 2022

Authority: Presidential Proclamation

The men and women of the 552nd Air Control Wing are cited for outstanding performance of duty and extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy in their role in defeating Russian forces during Operation Dominant Fury, from 7 May 2022 to 23 May 2022.

On 4 May 2022, Russian forces invaded sovereign territories of the NATO alliance, resulting in the United States committing US forces to battle under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. On 5 May 2022, pilots, crew, and ground staff of the 552nd hastily deployed to Rota, Spain, from Tinker AFB with six previously classified upgraded versions of the E-3C Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, known as the Block 60 variant.

Following a nine-hour transit and 12 hours after arrival in Rota, the 552nd began combat operations in conjunction with US and NATO forces. NATO’s E3-A AWACS of the standing NATO Airborne Warning and Control Force had been explicitly targeted by Russian fighter aircraft, very-long range SAM systems, and PGM attacks on Geilenkirchen airbase on the first two days of the war, resulting in catastrophic losses to NATO’s airborne command and control battle management (C2BM) capability.

The impact of the 552nd aircrews on the air battle was immediate and decisive. Regaining information dominance lost to the Russians in the initial attack allowed NATO forces to regain control of the skies over Europe. This set the stage for the largest air battle of the war, a battle won in large part by the 552nd.

On 15 May, the enemy, determined to achieve their wartime objectives at all costs and recognizing the threat the Tinker aircraft posed to their ground and air offensive, made a desperate gamble and concentrated five manned air regiments on penetrating NATO’s air defenses to target the E3-Cs.

Instead of falling back to stay out of range of Russian missiles and thereby surrendering the battlespace to the enemy, the Tinker crews of tail number 80-0138 (call sign Galactica-6) and 81-0005 (call sign Galactica-9) maintained their orbits and utilized their organic C2BM capability to direct NATO combat aircraft and SAM units. They also fully utilized their previously classified ability to execute air combat missions utilizing armed Nimble drones launched by the Motherships of the 4469th Operational Readiness Group.

In this action, 43 Russian aircraft were credited with directly being shot down by Galactica-6 and Galactica-9 drone operators controlling UCAVs in air-to-air combat. The Nimble pilots of Galactica-9 accounted for eight enemy aircraft before their E-3C was shot down with the loss of the entire crew, while the pilots and crew of Galactica-6 accounted for 35 manned aircraft.

In addition to their history-making air-to-air combat kills, granting each aircrew air combat “ace” status, the AWACS crews effectively directed the larger air battle over western Poland, displaying such superlative effectiveness in accomplishing their mission under extremely difficult and hazardous conditions as to set them apart and above other units participating in the action. Their efforts resulted in the loss of over 200 Russian aircraft in nine hours of furious combat, effectively breaking the back of the Russian tactical air force. Their efforts had a direct and material impact on the larger conflict.

The 552nd flew combat missions for eight more days without suffering additional loss, and collected as a group another 21 air-to-air kills. NATO air superiority was a key to eventual victory in Europe, and the 552nd played a vital role in that victory.

The extraordinary heroism, singleness of purpose, and esprit de corps exhibited by the members of the aircrews of the 552nd reflect great credit on themselves and are in keeping with the most esteemed traditions of the military service.

Additional Instructions:

This order serves as official notification that a unit award has been approved for the organization listed above and will serve as authority for eligible airmen to update their records and wear the award. The award is still subject to final confirmation in Department of the Air Force General Orders.

BY ORDER OF THE SECRETARY OF THE AIR FORCE


PERMANENT ORDER 113-15

4469th Operational Readiness Group

Announcement is made of the following award:

Presidential Unit Citation

Period of Service: 9 May 2022 – 23 May 2022

Authority: Presidential Proclamation

The men and women of the 4469th Operational Readiness Group are cited for outstanding performance of duty and extraordinary heroism in action against the enemy in their role in defeating Russian forces during Operation Dominant Fury, from 9 May 2022 to 23 May 2022.

On 4 May 2022, Russian forces invaded sovereign territories of the NATO alliance, resulting in the United States committing US forces to battle under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. On 5 May 2022, pilots, crew, and ground staff of the 15 mission aircraft comprising the 4469th ORG received orders to deploy to Seymour Johnson AFB from Dyess AFB. Combat operations commenced on 9 May 2022, with the historic first combat Mothership mission when two C-7s carrying full complements of Nimble Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) in an air combat configuration, deployed 24 expendable UCAV’s at a decisive point in a contest for control of the skies over Gotland.

Mothership missions staging from CONUS continued at an accelerated pace, with no less than six aircraft either in transit or on station at any given time. This operational tempo tested the capabilities and esprit de corps of the crews to fly 20 hour missions and the ground crews to keep the Motherships loaded and operational. Mothership deployments were continuous, with multiple configurations sometimes launched from single aircraft, including CAP, Strike, and SEAD. Roughly a third of the Nimbles survived and auto-landed at preprogrammed airfields in Western Europe, where they were collected by advance teams from the 4469th and shipped back to the United States for eventual reuse. Those advance teams suffered serious losses from enemy action on two occasions due to PGM and ballistic missile strikes. These were the only losses suffered by the 4469th.

During the culminating air battle on 15 May 2022, the two on-station C-7s were rejoined by two already in transit back to the United States, and later by the next two scheduled to be on station. The two Motherships recalled eventually flew 35-hour missions. Together the six Motherships deployed 59 UCAVs into the battle which were controlled and directed by AWACS of the 552nd ACW, or slaved to NATO tactical forces. The combat power delivered by the 4469th on 15 May was critical to winning the day over a determined enemy. The 4469th sustained this high operational tempo until a ceasefire was declared on 22 May 2022. The heroic efforts of the aircrews and ground staff of the 4469th reflect great credit on themselves and are in keeping with the most esteemed traditions of the military service.

Additional Instructions:

This order serves as official notification that a unit award has been approved for the organization listed above and will serve as authority for eligible airmen to update their records and wear the award. The award is still subject to final confirmation in Department of the Air Force General Orders.

BY ORDER OF THE SECRETARY OF THE AIR FORCE