Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein and Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright visited Task Force-Southeast April 30 to see firsthand how the unit is supporting the whole-of-government approach to the Department of Defense’s response to COVID-19.
“This is the nation’s number one priority, so therefore, you are the number one priority,” Goldfein said. “My job as chief is to get you the resources you need, and the decision authority you need, to be able to operate quickly in a rapidly changing environment and to remove obstacles you know may be well intentioned, but quite frankly, are a frustration for you.”
Ninth Air Force stood up March 31 as TF-SE at the direction of the CSAF and Gen. Mike Holmes, commander of Air Combat Command, to provide defense support of civil authorities to Federal Emergency Management Agency Regions III & IV under U.S. Northern Command via U.S. Army North.
“Based on our last few years of work (toward) becoming a service-retained joint task force, we were able to do that pretty quickly,” said Maj. Gen. Chad Franks, Task Force-Southeast and Ninth AF commander. “… Within about three days, we had a (tactical operations center) put together.”
Franks added Ninth AF started working 12-hour shifts to cover 24-hour operations, and as more Airmen and joint partners flowed in, the task force was up and running within a week.
This is the first time Ninth AF was employed as a task force for real-world operations after being selected to become a JTF-capable headquarters by the CSAF in 2016.
Nearly 200 active-duty military, guard and reserve members, and civilians from the U.S. Air Force, Royal Air Force, U.S. Army and U.S. Navy make up the TF-SE headquarters. The service members hail from 75 units located at more than 37 U.S. installations.
Additionally, the unit commands and controls a response force of 281 Title 10 servicemembers and DoD civilians within their area of operations.
“Our job is to make sure all of our active-duty personnel, (who) are responding to COVID-19 in support of the states within those two regions that range from Pennsylvania down to Florida and east of the Mississippi, get into the fight and have everything they need so they can be good teammates with the rest of the government response,” Franks said.
Before becoming TF-SE, Ninth AF’s path to achieving full operating capability as a JTF-capable headquarters for the Air Force included 13 exercises from November 2017 to February 2020.
Each exercise built upon one another: the joint planning process and how to implement JPP while focusing on varied mission sets such as humanitarian assistance, noncombatant evacuation operations, defense of country authorities and more. In addition, Ninth AF also trained in five simulated geographic combatant commands – U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Africa Command, U.S. Central Command, EUCOM, and U.S. Indo-Pacific Commad.
“It started about four years ago when (Goldfein) had a vision for our service, and he wanted us to get back into the joint game. So, he designated Ninth Air Force as that place where we would build that capability,” Franks explained. “Ninth Air Force over the last few years has really gotten after it to build that capability. I think in this crisis that we’re currently in, we show Ninth Air Force has that capability; they have the experienced leaders they need to stand up a joint task force and make a difference.”
Ninth AF demonstrated it achieved initial operating capability in December 2018, and as part of the road to full operating capability, Ninth AF was scheduled to be the JTF-HQ for exercise Northern Viking 20 in Iceland in April. Due to COVID-19, the exercise was cancelled for the year.
However, standing up as a real-world task force composed of joint and coalition partners brought CSAF’s vision for an Air Force-led joint task force to fruition. The next step for Ninth AF will be declaring full operating capability at some point in the future with the ultimate goal of providing more options for the joint fight.
“One of the things you do as leaders is you plant seeds; you plant ideas,” Goldfein expressed. “Sometimes those seeds hit fertile soil, sometimes they hit rocks. You never know when you plant the seeds which ones are going to happen. This seed hit fertile soil here at Shaw (AFB), and it has grown roots into the organization. It’s the beginning where you know you are the leading edge of where we need to go as an Air Force, and some ways return as an Air Force to having JTF capability and know we can offer up the Secretary and the Chairmen for combat operations. I could not be happier with where you’ve taken it. It really, really warms my heart to see this seed hit fertile ground and the great leadership here at Shaw.”