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Small Kadena unit has big Air Force job

Staff Sgt. Crystal Sheffield, weapons director, and Airman 1st Class Amber Hoedebeck, weapons director technician, 623rd Air Control Flight, on the job at Naha Air Base, Japan. They control the mission by using a Base Air Defense Ground Environment system (BADGE), providing command and control over aircraft with a 360-degree radius. They communicate with pilots, providing time-critical information in order to accomplish the mission. U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Steven Nabor

Staff Sgt. Crystal Sheffield, weapons director, and Airman 1st Class Amber Hoedebeck, weapons director technician, 623rd Air Control Flight, on the job at Naha Air Base, Japan. They control the mission by using a Base Air Defense Ground Environment system (BADGE), providing command and control over aircraft with a 360-degree radius. They communicate with pilots, providing time-critical information in order to accomplish the mission. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Steven Nabor)

Tech. Sgt. Connie Brent (left) and Maj. Charles Dennison, both with the 623rd Air Control Flight, control ae Large Force Exercise (LFE) by using the Base Air Defense Ground Environment system. Sergeant Brent relays time- sensitive information to Maj. Dennison, the mission crew commander, where he controls the air space by guiding aircraft into different sections according to the mission plan.  U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Steven Nabor

Tech. Sgt. Connie Brent (left) and Maj. Charles Dennison, both with the 623rd Air Control Flight, control ae Large Force Exercise (LFE) by using the Base Air Defense Ground Environment system. Sergeant Brent relays time- sensitive information to Maj. Dennison, the mission crew commander, where he controls the air space by guiding aircraft into different sections according to the mission plan. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Steven Nabor)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan -- When it comes to supporting the 18th Wing's flight training mission, one small Kadena unit has a big job. 

With only 30 members and comprised mostly of weapons directors and radar technicians, the 623rd Air Control Flight is headquartered on Kadena under the 18th Operations Group, but conducts its business from Naha Air Base at the southern part of Okinawa supporting the 44th and 67th fighter squadrons as well as other units and services. 

"We're a little unit no one knows about," said Maj. Chuck Dennison, 623rd ACF commander. "We use four ground-based radars around Okinawa which funnel information into the Southwest Direction Center at Naha Air Base." The direction center and radar are owned by the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force and the two groups work side by side at Naha. "A lot of people, who do know about us, don't know that we operate from Naha Air Base." 

A team consisting of officers, controllers and technicians make the 20-mile trip to Naha every flying day to provide overlapping command and control support with airborne warning and control system aircraft, and primary support when AWACS is not available. Because the onboard radar in fighter aircraft are in the nose, they only "see" forward and cannot detect or track other aircraft to the side or rear. AWACS and the ground-based radar used by the 623rd ACF provide pilots with information on other aircraft in a 360-degree radius from their position. 

The 623rd ACF, call sign Lightsword, provides 88 percent of the wing's command and control missions, according to Major Dennison.. 

"We're a safety net for the 18th Wing's fighter training mission," said Staff Sgt. Jackie Robinson, 623rd ACF controller. 

The mission would not succeed without the controllers and technicians working with each other on the 1960s-era radar scopes at the direction center. "While the system is old, it is extremely reliable," said Tech. Sgt. D.J. Patton, 623rd ACF operations superintendent. "I can't remember the last time, if ever, we had to cancel a training mission because of a maintenance issue." 

Because the direction center and radars are owned by JASDF and only used by the 623rd ACF, the flight has nominal operating expenditures. 

"We are a very cost-effective unit," said Major Dennison. "We have around 30 people, don't own any buildings and the only equipment we have are three vehicles." 

Members of the 623rd abide by Japanese culture and do not wear shoes inside the direction center. 

"We take our boots off at the center," said Major Dennison. "We do wear slippers. After more than 40 years use, there's not a single scuff mark on the floor. It looks amazingly brand new." 

There are three more direction centers covering different areas on mainland Japan operated by JASDF, with 23 radar sites spread among them. In time of war, members of Lightsword could deploy to one of those sites depending on the location of U.S. aircraft needing support. 

The history of Lightsword dates back to the activation of the 305th Fighter Control Group in March 1943 at Bradley Field, Conn. The unit was assigned to several locations in the United States before moving to Okinawa near Okuma on the northern part of the island in September 1945. It moved to Naha AB in 1957 and arrived at Kadena in the center of the island in 1983. 

A note of history of which Major Dennison is proud, the 623rd ACF deployed to northern Japan in September 1983 to assist in controlling air space for aircraft searching for bodies from Korean Airlines Flight 007, shot down by the Soviet Union. That garnered a letter for the unit from the South Korean minister of national defense for their outstanding humanitarian effort. 

"Lightsword has a distinguished past and an even brighter future as it supported the Air Force's latest fighter, the F-22A Raptor, which was on Kadena for three months during their first-ever air and space expeditionary force deployment," said Major Dennison. "I'm excited our unit controlled the cutting edge technology fighter and I am very proud of the men and women in the little unit with a big mission."