By Sgt. Brandon BanzhafFebruary 3, 2017
SOUTHWEST ASIA -- In a hardened tent with an almost endless display of monitors, maps and heads up displays, a team of specialists, a sergeant and a lieutenant run their battalion's operations.
As the sun disappears from the horizon, they settle into their shift. They perform their preventative maintenance checks, send up reports, but more importantly, they watch the wall of monitors for red blips -- airborne threats.
Suddenly, three familiar guests walk into the tactical operations center. The crew recognizes them. They know that the next five to six hours are going to be tough. It's time for an evaluation.
"What I try to do is come up with ways for them to think about on how to streamline their procedures and make them better," explained Chief Warrant Officer 4 Joseph Brock, standardization chief for the 69th Air Defense Artillery "Top Notch" Brigade. "The end state is to improve upon the proficiency and knowledge of all air and missile defense crews."
Brock has been an air defender for more than 15 years. He started as a tactical control officer. Today, he is the subject matter expert for all things air defense. It's his job, along with his team of noncommissioned officers, to travel to all of the Top Notch's subordinate units to evaluate, train and mentor the air defense Soldiers.
"I look at it as a big responsibility," Brock said. "To me, it's a humbling experience. I've been taught so much, and now I have the opportunity to teach and mentor others."
In nine months, the standardization team has performed 150 evaluations across five different countries. "We have a standard format on how we do it, but each location has a unique situation and unique environment," Brock said. "So we cater our evaluations to the actual operating environment."
Day or night, the standardization crews evaluate. No crew is safe from their attention to detail and strict adherence to the grading rubric.
DOWN TO THE SMALLEST DETAIL
Upon entering the tactical operations center, Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Davis, standardization NCO, works with the maintenance Soldier to check the accuracy of the equipment logs. The smallest detail could cost the crew much-needed points and result in a "no go" on the evaluation.
The pair then walk outside to inspect every piece of equipment and ensure that every fault is annotated. Davis crawls under and climbs on top of the vehicles and equipment, inspecting compartments, checking boxes and scribbling notes in his notebook.
As Davis examines the unit's maintenance program, Staff Sgt. Christopher Temple, standardization NCO, observes the crew in the tactical operations center. Occasionally, he asks a crew member a situational question to see if he completely understands his responsibilities.
Until a simulated threat is displayed on the screens.
"Fireball, Fireball, Fireball," yells Spc. Robert Dixon, a tactical planner and early warning specialist. His crew members repeat his words back in acknowledgment of the alert. Their digital map updates with enemy missiles and aircraft. The Soldiers react accordingly.
Instinctively, half the crew don their gas masks and protective gloves as the other half remain focused on the battle and calling out updates. They then switch roles so the rest of the team can get into their chemical, biological, radioactive and nuclear protective gear.
"This is part of the procedures that, if tactical ballistic missiles are assessed to have chemical agents, it's possible that there will be fallout," Brock pointed out. "So they don their chemical gear."
Now more than ever, the Soldiers must maintain their focus, because their words are muffled by their masks and their gloves can cause inaccuracy in their communications. An evaluator stands behind the crew, taking notes as he observes.
Isolated in the engagement control station outside, Brock watches a Soldier coordinate and communicate with the fire units. This Soldier directs who is to fire at what.
SIGH OF RELIEF
When the last fire command is given and the red blips disappear, the situational-based test comes to an end. Then, the standardization team tallies up the points and calls the crew over to discuss the results.
"We conduct [after action reviews] to help give feedback, to point out things we noticed," said Staff Sgt. Christopher Temple, an evaluator. "The important part of the AAR is to have a two-way conversation. It's about building them as crews so they can conduct their mission and become better."
The evaluators leave and the Soldiers sigh with relief. The crew spends the rest of their shift reviewing their own performance, while standing ready for another red blip to appear, because this time, it might not be simulated.
"Some of the challenges you may experience are unexpected mishaps or equipment malfunctions, little things like that, but you have to stay calm, troubleshoot and get it working properly so you can continue on with the mission," Dixon said.
"It's very important for us to be certified because it proves to our assets that they can rely on us -- that we can do our job and, if anything ever goes south, we have their backs."