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Powering Success for the 263rd

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Robert Carver
  • NC Joint Force Headquarters, Public Affairs
As the mercury rises, so does Technical Sgt. Ernest Holston's popularity.

Holston and 80 of his fellow airmen from the North Carolina Air National Guard's, 263rd Combat Communications Squadron based in New London, N.C., came to Seymour Johnson Air Force base in Goldsboro, N.C. June 12, 2015, to participate in a six day exercise called "Medusa Rising." This exercise is part of the 263rd's 2015 annual training.

These airmen are working alongside active-duty airmen to support a simulated Air Support Operations Center and practice the setup of sophisticated communications equipment they could be called to use at anytime and anywhere around the world. Their primary customer for this mission is the 682nd Air Support Operations Squadron based at Pope Army Air Field next to Fort Bragg. The 682nd's primary customers are the soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division.

"I'm pretty much responsible for all the air conditioning," said the Holston from Sanford who, in civilian life, works an information technology helpdesk at BASF in Durham, N.C.

"In combat communication, we're a 'Large Communications Package,'" said Lt. Col. Anthony Sullins, 263rd commander. "Essentially, we have the capability to build an air base, up to 3,500 people, at six different locations within a 10-mile radius."

Some of Sullins' airmen will have to help do just that when they deploy to remote and austere locations this fall and winter. 

On this mid-June day with temperatures approaching 100 degrees and more, it all starts with power and air conditioning. Holston needs electricity to power the air conditioners that cool both the unit's people and the high-tech communications gear they operate.

"We're the first ones here and the last ones to leave," said Senior Airman Tyler Morton, a 263rd power production technician. "No one else can really do anything else until we provide power."

And there is a lot to do. Tents, military vehicles and an assortment of antennas dot the landscape in this grassy patch at the center of the base. The unit set up secure communications lines for transmitting classified information as well as lines for unclassified email and telephone networks.

Airmen used Radio Frequency Kits, or RFKs, to extend services to a simulated operations group, a simulated maintenance group and a simulated mission support group. 263rd operations officer, Maj. Jay Cowan said they also put in a switch and voice-transmitting equipment that allows them to install hundreds of telephones wherever a customer needs them.

Technical Sgt. Sherry Williams, a student from Fayetteville, N.C. assigned to the 263rd's Radio Frequency Transmissions section, worked in the heat with a team setting up portable antennas.

"You see a lot of Special Forces using it, but this is specifically for a satellite link," said Williams. "They'll have the ability to talk over satellite to a distant end and we'll also be setting up air-to-ground radio as well."

In recent years, rumors have had the combat communications career field diminishing in importance. Sullins doesn't see it happening. In fact, he says his unit has more on its plate than at any time in recent memory. With only one active-duty Air Force combat communications unit in the continental United States and one each in Pacific Air Command and United States Air Forces in Europe, the Air National Guard has picked up an increasing number of missions.

The Air National Guard has the people with the qualifications to meet the need. Many of the 263rd's airmen have civilian jobs with high-tech companies. More than a few hold advanced degrees in information technology and high-level IT certifications, most paid for by their civilian employers, this in addition to their years of on-the-job experience.

The Department of Defense has acknowledged it would be hard-pressed to maintain the level of know-how and experience among active-duty forces that Guard Airmen bring to the table. North Carolina, with its vibrant IT industry and multitude of research universities is well positioned to provide combat communications and cyber defense Airmen for the foreseeable future.

"Combat communication leads the way, right?" said Technical Sgt. Matthew Lee of Gastonia, N.C., who will deploy in the fall. "Without comm, you're not going to have support down range, you're not going to have support for establishing the base and you have to have that."

It all starts with power and air conditioning. It all starts with people like Ernest Holston.

"Yeah, I'm a pretty important guy around here."