NASHVILLE - The Tennessee Air National Guard's 118th Airlift Wing based in Nashville has flown all types of aircraft in its long history - from fighter planes to transport and cargo planes. But their new mission signals a larger shift in the Air Force to unmanned aircraft and cyber security.
Under a restructuring plan, the Air Force announced earlier this year the unit's C-130 transport planes would be replaced with MQ-9 Remote Piloted Aircraft, also known as the Reaper drone. The plan also calls for the 118th Wing to get a cyber-security unit and expand their intelligence squadron.
The changes coming to the unit based at the Nashville International Airport reflect post 9/11 shifts in the Air Force to place an emphasis on using the latest technology for gathering intelligence and surveillance.
The unit employs about 1,200 personnel. About a third are full-time National Guard members and the remainder are traditional, part-time Guard positions, according to Col. Chuck Echols, base commander for the 118th Airlift Wing.
The unit deployed its planes and personnel during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been among the first to respond to natural disasters at home in the United States, including Hurricane Katrina.
Currently the unit is looking for men and women to join the Air National Guard to help them as they prepare and train for their new mission, Echols said.
"It's a one-of-a-kind unit in the Air Force," he said.
Nationally the Air Force is trying to meet a shortfall of more than 300 drone pilots for unmanned aircraft around the world. Echols noted that the Air Force has trained more pilots to operate unmanned aircraft than those being trained for traditional fighter and bomber aircraft.
Locally, Echols said 95 percent of the base's personnel will have to be retrained for positions under the new mission for the wing. Training for these Guard members could take between seven months and a year.
"That takes a commitment from the Guardsman and their employer," Echols said.
Echols explained that the openings for part-time Guard members at the 118th Airlift Wing will give them access to training that will make them an asset to employers, as commercial and research interest is increasing in the field of cyber security and remotely piloted aircraft.
"Once someone gets trained, it's a highly sought-after skill set," Echols said.
Just 30 miles down the road, Middle Tennessee State University has been partnering with the military through its Unmanned Aircraft Systems program to develop research for unmanned aircraft technology. And law enforcement agencies in Tennessee and across the nation have been studying the use of small remote aircraft to assist in search-and-rescue and surveillance operations.
Details are still being finalized for the 118th Airlift Wing's new mission, and Echols said it's too soon to speculate on whether the unmanned aircraft will be coming to Nashville skies in the near future.
While the unit is not using their C-130s any longer, they will still have a role in assisting in response to state and federal emergencies, such as hurricanes, tornados or flooding. Echols said that the new technology and skills the Guardsmen learn will aid in assessing damage, analyzing risks and gathering real-time information during natural disasters.