Offutt-based Air National Guard unit doubling in size, mission next year

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Kevin Hynes, Nebraska Air National Guard

A unique Nebraska Air National Guard unit based at Offutt Air Force Base is doubling in size and mission, senior Nebraska governmental and military leaders announced Sept. 10.

The 170th Group – an innovative Nebraska Air National Guard organization that has provided both fulltime and part-time support to the 55th Wing for the past 20 years in the areas of formal flight training, airfield operations, flight records, scheduling and other current operations and plans – is expanding into aircraft maintenance and intelligence support.

According to Governor Pete Ricketts, the growth is due to the important work taking place between the Active Air Force’s 55th Wing and the Nebraska Air Guard’s 170th Group on a daily basis at Offutt Air Force Base.

“For 20 years now, the 170th Group has been assisting the 55th Wing in a variety of ways from flight training to scheduling. That has helped the 55th Wing to be able to manage when they had personnel shortages…the 170th Group helps smooth out that transition,” said Ricketts. “Because of that great work, we’re announcing that the 170th Group is going to be expanding.”

Under a growth initiative that began in April, the 170th is adding two additional squadrons – the 170th Maintenance Support Squadron and the 170th Intelligence Support Squadron. The two new squadrons will essentially double the 170th Group’s current personnel authorization.

“That will create even more opportunities for the Nebraska National Guard to assist here on base,” Ricketts said. “It also creates an exciting opportunity for a lot of the Air Force folks who may be completing their terms of service and want to stay here in Nebraska because we have the best place in the world to live right here. If you join the Nebraska National Guard you can stay right here and continue to do the great work on base.”

“So, this is a win, win, win for everybody,” the governor added.

Prior to the new reorganization, the 170th Group included approximately 80 fulltime and part-time Airmen assigned to either the Group headquarters, the 238th Combat Training Squadron or the 170th Operations Support Squadron. It has been stationed at Offutt since September 2002 through a unique Total Force partnership effort between the Active Air Force and the Nebraska Air National Guard.

Often lauded by senior Air Force leaders as “one of the Air Force’s best-kept secrets,” the 170th Group-55th Wing relationship has matured over the past 20 years into one of the most effective Total Force efforts in the United States Air Force. And as that reputation grew, U.S. Air Force and Air National Guard leaders began to look for new and innovative ways to increase the positive impacts of the 170th Group’s efforts.

Now, following approximately a decade’s efforts involving extensive concept development, proposals, planning and final sanctioning by the Department of Air Force, the growth effort is finally a reality.

According to U.S. Representative Don Bacon who served as commander of the 55th Wing during the early days of the partnership, growing the 170th Group into new areas of the wing simply makes sense.

“The sun never sets on the Fighting 55th. They have the busiest (operational tempo) in the entire Air Force… and we can’t do it without the Guard,” said Bacon following the announcement. “The Air National Guard makes it possible.”

“The 170th Group augments this wing. It provides instructors, it provides 15 years of experience in many cases in each individual,” he said. “So, while an active Airman rotates, the Guard brings continuity, experience and stability to this wing.”

Bacon said his firsthand experience while serving as commander of the 55th Wing reinforced his feelings how much the Guard has and can contribute to the wing’s global mission.

“I know as commander in 2011 and 12 we flew every single day all over the world (and) that we couldn’t have done it without the Guard,” he said. “So, now we’re going to roll into this capability an intelligence squadron and a maintenance squadron and hopefully even more down the road, which is going to strengthen the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission throughout the world.

According to Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, Nebraska adjutant general, the partnership between the Nebraska Air National Guard and the 55th Wing is one of the best in the entire U.S. Air Force. At the heart of that partnership, he added, is an extremely high level of mutual trust between the 55th Wing and the 170th Group that has been developed and nurtured over the past 20 years. 

“It’s because of the trust gained through the efforts of the members of the 170th Group over the last 20 years that makes it possible for these things to happen… not only for the Nebraska National Guard, not only for the 55th Wing, but for the United States Air Force and the nation,” Bohac said.

From Humble Beginnings…

According to Col. Wendy Squarcia, 170th Group commander, the new Nebraska Air National Guard expansion is the direct result of the extremely successful Total Force effort between the Nebraska Air National Guard and the 55th Wing that first began around 25 years ago when a small group of Nebraska Air Guardsmen developed an idea that would allow the Nebraska Air Guard to help the 55th Wing address periodic manpower shortages and loss of expertise as active Airmen routinely moved into and out of the organization. Too often, she said, these active duty rotations created a significant loss of available expertise or available skills, which created significant impacts upon the 55th Wing’s capabilities in multiple areas.

To solve this problem, said retired Maj. Gen. Rick Evans who was a member of that initial “Tiger Team” group, the Nebraska Air National Guard proposed creating a core group of highly trained Air National Guard officers, noncommissioned officers and enlisted Airmen who could provide both continuity and high levels of expertise within the 55th Wing.

They could do this for a very simple, but important reason: National Guardsmen typically reside near their units. Because they are not subject to routine, periodic changes of assignments to new locations, these highly skilled and experienced Guardsmen could remain in Nebraska and at Offutt Air Force Base far longer than typically seen in active Air Force careers – thus creating a bridge over the periodic reassignments of active duty Airmen.

What started as Detachment 1 of the Nebraska Air National Guard in September 2002, soon grew into a squadron-level and then group-level effort with the formal organization of the 170th Group and its two squadrons in July 2007. As that partnership grew and expanded, the collaborative effort soon attracted attention of Air Force leaders, both locally and nationally.

“The partnership has been a tremendous success,” Squarcia said. “You’ll often hear people at Offutt say that you can’t tell the difference between active duty and Guard unless you look at the color of our patches. This is a testament to the seamless integration and partnerships between the 55th Wing and the 170th Group at Offutt Air Force Base.”

“We are completely embedded into every aspect of the 55th Wing mission,” she added.

Col. Kristen Thompson, commander of the 55th Wing, agreed.

“When I look globally at our mission all around the world, we couldn’t do what we do without the support of (Col. Wendy Squarcia) and her team,” said Thompson. “Her team is completely embedded and integrated into everything that we do.”

“I just couldn’t ask for anything more…(We’re) truly blessed to have teammates who are partners in our global mission every day,” she added.

Within a few years of the establishment of the Guard unit, news of the successful partnership began to grow as the effort continued to add significant accomplishments and milestones. Soon, Nebraska Air National Guard and U.S. Air Force leaders began to look for new ways to grow the effort into other parts of the 55th Wing, thus providing even higher levels of expertise and continuity.

“Because this relationship has been so successful, other organizations at Offutt asked for that same longevity, expertise and continuity that occurs when you associate a Guard unit with an active duty organization,” Squarcia said.

According to Bohac, initial discussions began early in the partnership at Offutt Air Force Base and often revolved around forming a new maintenance support squadron into the 170th Group. However, because the Nebraska Air National Guard already had a maintenance group located within the Lincoln-based 155th Air Refueling Wing, leaders were initially resistant due to concerns that staffing two separate aircraft maintenance units might prove too difficult to accomplish in a state like Nebraska.

However, as the organizations became more familiar with each other’s capabilities, Bohac said it soon became evident that the need and the ability to stand up an Air Guard maintenance support unit at Offutt was not only feasible, but necessary.

“This is an area where we can have a strong impact given that the 55th Wing manages multiple (aircraft model design systems,” he said.

The maintenance concept was soon followed by other studies that identified intelligence support as another area of possible collaboration between the Nebraska Air National Guard and the 55th Wing, said Bohac. Offutt leaders and Nebraska’s congressional delegation endorsed those proposals, Bohac added, leading to what became a years-long effort to grow the 170th Group.

Growing the Mission

With the standing up of the new squadrons, Nebraska Air National Guard leaders are now searching for both qualified Airmen and prospective recruits to fill the units’ ranks. And not just any Airmen, either.

"I want to find those people who really want to make a difference,” said Lt. Col. Sam Schneider, a member of the 170th Group who is now the new chief of Maintenance Operations and charged with forming the new 170th Maintenance Support Squadron from scratch. “The whole mission of the 170th Maintenance Support Squadron will be to support the 55th Maintenance Group. I want to make sure that the 55th Maintenance Group succeeds. If we can put highly motivated, highly successful people into this new squadron, I know that we can make that happen.”

Once the unit is completely stood up in approximately three years, the 155th Maintenance Support Squadron will consist of 45 part-time and a 19 full-time positions representing a wide cross-section of the various maintenance skillsets within the 55th Maintenance Group, said Senior Master Sgt. Kyle Eddy, Nebraska Air National Guard Recruiting and Retention senior enlisted leader. The unit will also have a wide array of military ranks, from senior airman up to senior master sergeant.

“Think of this as a small cross-section of the 55th Maintenance Group,” Eddy said. “Just about all of the (Air Force Specialty Codes) within the 55th Maintenance Group will be included within the new 170th Maintenance Support Squadron.

Those skillsets will include Airmen trained in education and training, special integrated instrument and flight control systems, fabrication, special integrated communication/navigation/mission systems, fuels, special mission aircraft maintenance, aircraft electrical and environmental systems and aircraft maintenance

The new 170th Intelligence Support Squadron will be similarly staffed with Airmen trained in the wide array of intelligence specialties represented in the 55th Wing, said Senior Master Sgt. Anthony Whitfield, senior enlisted leader for the new 170th ISS. These will include all source intelligence analysts, electronic signals analysts, communications signals analysts, cryptologic language analysts, cryptologic analysts and reporters, an intelligence officer.

Whitfield said those positions were identified through a collaborative effort between the 55th Wing and the Nebraska Air National Guard. “Our active-duty counterparts in the 55th Intelligence Support Squadron identified areas where they have experienced shortfalls in manning, training, experience or retention,” Whitfield said. “The 170th Group then determined what positions would be practicable for the Guard.”

The goal, said Schneider, is to build two new squadrons capable of providing much-needed day-to-day support to assist the 55th Wing in maintaining its operational capabilities, even if it’s in a period of high turnover of active duty personnel. 

The impact that adding these positions can have is significant.

“The 170th serves as a type of shock-absorber for the 55th Wing,” said Schneider. By providing continuity during those periodic times when the organization’s active duty Airmen are shifting between bases, leaving the service or attending professional military schools, Schneider said the 170th is able to help the 55th Wing continue to fulfill its operational and training requirements at an extremely high level.

The concept has already been proven within the training and operational support functions, Schneider said. He said he believe the same will hold true as it now enters the aircraft maintenance and intelligence support arenas.

Whitfield agrees.

“Over the last 20 years, the Offutt-Nebraska Air National Guard relationship has been repeatedly pointed to as the model for Total Force integration,” he said. “Expanding the 170th Group to include an (intelligence support squadron) will extend and strengthen that relationship, increasing overall manning, continuity and mission expertise. The Guard can retain active-duty Airmen who wish to continue to serve in the local area rather than move again or leave the service.

“Our intent is not to poach folks from these (active-duty) units, but rather to ‘catch’ members who already intend to separate,” Whitfield said. “This way we gain fully qualified members, while Team Offutt retains their experience.”

The 170th Group is able to do this, said Squarcia, by giving highly-trained Airmen – who might not otherwise stay at Offutt Air Force Base or the Air Force – new sets of options enabling them to continue to serve in the military while also having the ability to remain in the local area, pursue college educations or begin new civilian careers at the same time.

“The success of these initiatives are important to the overall success of the 170th Group and the 55th Wing,” Squarcia said. “Adding Guard support into an active duty organization helps keep current, qualified and trained experts here and adds to the continuity of the 55th Wing.”

There’s an operational component to the effort as well, Squarcia said. Airmen who serve in the 170th Group are also available to serve on deployments as well.

“We can potentially add to the deployment pool, which would lessen the burden on our active duty Airmen,” she added. “The Wing and the Nebraska Air National Guard are extremely excited about the future mission success of the 170th Intelligence Support Squadron and the 170th Maintenance Support Squadron. Adding additional Guard personnel and manpower will only continue to enhance the partnership here in the 170th Group and 55th Wing.”

The concept has already been proven within the training and operational support functions, Schneider said. He believe the same will hold true as it now enters the aircraft maintenance and intelligence support arenas.

Continuing to Serve Closer to Home

Senior Master Sgt. James Westerdale is a good example of the many benefits that this partnership has brought both to individuals and the organizations involved. The senior enlisted leader for the Air Guard’s 238th Training Support Squadron, Westerdale joined the Nebraska Air National Guard after serving for more than 21 years in the active Air Force. By joining the Guard, he said he was able to continue to serve, gain valuable experience and support the 55th Wing’s important strategic missions.

“I am a unicorn by all standards,” Westerdale said, “but I felt like I still had more to give… I felt like this was a good home.”

Westerdale recently joined Schneider in the effort to build the new 170th Maintenance Support Squadron as the new unit’s senior enlisted point-of-contact. Westerdale said he and Schneider are working closely with the Nebraska Air National Guard’s recruiting and retention force to get the word out about the new unit and the opportunities it is bringing to the region. He added that the goal is to build a unit made up with a healthy mix of new enlistees, current members of the Air Guard and active duty Airmen looking to transition into the Guard.

“We’re looking for people, regardless of where they come from, who want to give back to the military, to their communities, to their state,” Westerdale said. “We’re looking for those people who still have something left in the tank who want to continue to serve and to contribute.”

Schneider agreed, saying the reason he first joined the 170th Group from active duty was that he wanted the ability to serve while also remaining close to the same region he had grown up in.

“One of the neat things about the 170th and what means the most to me is that I am from the area. (By joining the 170th Group) it provided me an opportunity to stay local. I can still support my state and support my country, be part of the military… but also I don’t have to move my family so often.”

Schneider said he’s looking for similar types of Airmen with similar goals and aspirations. “(We’re looking for) somebody who appreciates the position, appreciates the mission and appreciates the location… I want to find those people who really want to make a difference.”

Whitfield said he is looking for similar Airmen to fill the ranks of the new 170th Intelligence Support Squadron. “We are looking for motivated individuals – both prior service and new to the military – who are interested in being part of the exciting legacy of standing up a unit, and who will positively grow our partnership with the active duty into a successful future.”

Still building two new Air Force squadrons from scratch is anything but easy. In fact, say Schneider, Westerdale and Eddy, it’s extremely rare.

“It is an once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity,” said Westerdale. “It’s not something that happens every day. So you don’t necessarily have history on your side, especially within the state. And trying to find someone who has gone through this is almost non-existent.”

“It’s very exciting. Simultaneously, it’s nerve-racking when you start to see the scope of how big of a project this is,” said Schneider, admitting that he knows there are many eyes focused on the efforts to grow the 170th Group into these new missions. “It is a little overwhelming, but it’s also a tremendous honor to help stand this up.”

Because of the size and the uniqueness of the effort, the Nebraska Air National Guard and 55th Wing leaders spent years developing and implementing plans designed to get the units started on the right foot, said Eddy. That included a months-long effort to grow the Air Guard’s 155th Maintenance Group in Lincoln beyond 100 percent, knowing that members of that group would possibly seek to transfer into the 170th Maintenance Support Squadron in the near future. The 155th Maintenance Group ended the last fiscal year at 103 percent of its authorized strength because of that effort, Eddy added.

Eddy said Air Guard recruiters have also put added emphasis into recruiting people into the two new units. That effort includes the Guard’s in-service recruiter stationed at Offutt Air Force Base, who is already talking with Airmen daily about the new opportunities that are coming soon.  Eddy said those initial discussions with potential unit members have gone well, adding that the idea of serving at Offutt Air Force Base as a Nebraska Air National Guardsman has been “well received.”

“It’s going to be a long-term project,” Eddy said, adding that recruiters already had several people ready to move into the new maintenance support squadron on April 1. “We feel like we’re in a good position to support this effort. The fact that we took the state to over 103 percent by the end of the last fiscal year was a great step. And now we’ve got the right people in the right positions. We have a lot of people there who want to put people into the Guard.”

“It’s game on,” Eddy added.

Squarcia agreed, saying she’s excited for the future as the 170th Group grows and continues to support the 55th Wing and its missions in continuously evolving ways.

“The partnership between the 55th Wing and the 170th Group is a model for Total Force success,” Squarcia said. “In May 2021, a Total Force health assessment was conducted by (the Department of the Air Force). The organizations received the highest scores to date, and the assessment team identified five best practices.”

“The Total Force partnership (between the 170th Group and 55th Wing) have been the gold standard for 20 years and will continue to become even stronger as we expand the 170th Group into intelligence and maintenance.”