960th AACS commander completes historic training

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --

Lt. Col. Kristen Thompson, commander of the 960th Airborne Air Control Squadron, recently made history when she became the first command and control intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and E-3 AWACS pilot to complete the Joint Warfare Plans course and be certified as a mission commander.

According to Col. David Gaedecke, commander of the 552nd Air Control Wing, she was certified to be a mission commander after successfully completing the training at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. After graduating from the course, she represented the command and control community in execution of the mission command role during Red Flag 17-2. Ultimately, Gaedecke said, her achievement will greatly enhance combat integration within the E-3 community and further paves the way for other pilots and navigators to be mission commanders in the future.

“Lt. Col. Thompson accomplished yet another first for the Air Force, Combat Air Force, and the 552nd Air Control Wing...we are so proud of her! All of our AWACS operators are command and control experts and Lt. Col. Thompson proved just that during this historic event,” said Gaedecke.

The colonel’s preparation began long before she left for Red Flag. Mission command was something she had wanted to do for a long time and Red Flag 17-2 presented the perfect opportunity for her to do it, especially since she was there with her squadron.

“As soon as I decided I wanted to take on this challenge, I began my academic training with my two squadron weapons officers, who did an outstanding job getting me prepared,” Thompson said.

“They built a curriculum that featured academics from the Weapons School and included mission planning trainers designed to help me successfully develop, plan, and lead a large force exercise. Their instruction was critical to my ability to organize and focus a mission package capable of executing commander’s intent and achieving mission success.”

The curriculum included radar principles, tactical mission briefing/debriefing fundamentals, weapons and tactical data link employment, joint theater control systems, and principles of battle management. She also intently studied the planning and execution techniques utilized to effectively determine the best course of action for solving tactical problem sets.

Upon arrival at Nellis Air Force Base, Thompson received additional academics through the JWPC taught by Weapons School instructors and the Red Flag leadership. This course is designed to prepare airpower experts to lead a large force employment exercise. The academics included advanced discussions on the various mission sets: Offensive Counter Air, Defensive Counter Air, Personnel Recovery, Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses and Air Interdiction.

“The role of the mission commander is important because it is an extension of the joint force commander’s control of joint air operations.

Through centralized control at the joint forces air component commander level and decentralized execution at the mission commander level, I learned how to flexibly focus airpower capabilities across the exercise’s theater of operations,” said Thompson.

“My instruction included how to efficiently plan and execute the tasked mission as specified in the Air Operations Directive while adapting to inevitable changes in the operational environment.”

Due to the vast scope of operations Thompson was charged with, she was persistent in understanding the authorities and command relationships inherent in her role. She also learned to trust in the individual package leaders to help manage the dynamic pace of combat operations during a large scale exercise like Red Flag.

After completing the course and getting her certification, it was then time to execute. Mission command is a two day event, with the first day devoted to mission planning and the second day spent executing the mission that was planned.

“During mission planning, I set a planning timeline that enabled me to provide overall mission guidance while allowing my individual package leaders to determine the right tactics to build our overall game plan and ensure mission success,” said Thompson. “We executed five formal meetings to solidify a plan to maintain air superiority, strike the enemy’s war making capabilities, and protect our assets executing tactical airlift and personnel recovery…all within the commander’s acceptable level of risk. Throughout the planning day our aim was to deliver a comprehensive and executable plan that would be approved by the Expeditionary Wing Commander.”

On execution day, she led the full sequence of events from the mission briefings and debriefing, to launching aircraft, to directing the Air Tasking Order for that mission. She performed her duties from the mission crew compartment on board the E-3, where she was able to effectively command and control the mission while integrating with the crew. She reported the mission and integration went well and that getting the opportunity to take her squadron into combat, and lead an overall JFACC-apportioned mission, was one of the proudest moments of her career.

“Reflecting on the mission, it was truly a humbling experience to lead not only my squadron, but an integrated package into combat,” said Thompson. “It was 48 hours of intense focus and hard work, but the reward was immense. I am very grateful to my mission’s tactical mentor who did a fantastic job guiding us throughout the planning and execution. The opportunity to be a mission commander is one I will never forget, because I know how critical this role plays in ensuring air dominance within a contested and degraded environment. A huge thanks to my weapons officers, my squadron, and Air Force teammates that prepared me well and stepped to fight with me on that day. I am honored to serve alongside these outstanding Airmen, who are dedicated professionals and true warriors.”