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1AF 2021 Year in Review… and an eye to the Future

  • Published
  • By Lt. Gen. Kirk Pierce, commander

To say that 2021 was a year for the record books would be an understatement. For First Air Force, these past 12 months brought many challenges, but also new partners and historic opportunities for growth. This year kept us extremely busy across all four mission sets: providing air defense of the Homeland, enabling Space Dominance, coordinating Defense Support to Civil Authorities, and assisting with Theater Security Cooperation.

In our no-fail homeland defense mission, as the Continental U.S. NORAD region (CONR), we executed more than 600 Presidential and National Security Special Events to defend the President while traveling, and to keep our citizens safe during large scale events such as the Super Bowl. During these missions, we conducted more than 500 flight actions and 37 intercepts to guide wayward aircraft back on course. We also demonstrated NORAD’s ability to rapidly deploy and employ air defense assets in the high north. During several Agile Combat Employment exercises to Canada and Greenland, we honed our Arctic flying skills and practiced our logistics and maintenance activities in harsh arctic environments. Additionally, we executed our first BLUE FLAG command and control exercise in 12 years. This enabled the AFNORTH staff and 601st Air Operation Center to synergize the staff work required to orchestrate a high-end fight. Our planning skills were further bolstered when the 505th Command and Control Wing from Hurlburt Field Florida provided a Joint Planning Process class to our military and civilian Airmen, sharing best practices from units all over the world.

In addition to supporting NORAD and U.S. Northern Command’s long-standing 24/7/365 air defense mission, we were honored to team up with the Defense Department’s newest combatant command. In February, General Charles, “CQ” Brown announced First Air Force would become the Air Component to U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM). Shortly thereafter, we assumed responsibility for one of DoD’s most unique and storied units. Detachment 3 is based at Patrick Space Force Base, Florida - only a stone’s throw away from Cape Canaveral. They are the only unit in the Defense Department with a primary mission to coordinate the rescue and recovery of NASA astronauts and rockets, and they’ve done so from project Mercury through the Space Shuttle, and now for SpaceX and NASA’s Artemis deep space program. The new mission will also bring new billets to Tyndall and in 2022, we will be postured to support NASA’s Human Space Flight Support launch and recoveries. We anticipate First Air Force will soon be designated as ‘Air Forces Space,’ changing our official unit designation to “CONR - 1 AF (AFNORTH & AFSPACE).”

In addition to partnering with NASA, First Air Force had many other opportunities to build interagency relationships in an action-packed year of Defense Support to Civil Authorities. In our AFNORTH role, we supported the USDA Forest Service by flying aerial firefighting missions alongside our civilian partners. Our Air National Guard and Reserve C-130 aircraft equipped with the Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System (MAFFS) flew DoD missions for U.S. Northern Command, bolstering wildfire suppression efforts during the second busiest season in 49 years. For the first time since 2012, the National Interagency Fire Center located in Boise, Idaho requested the simultaneous activation all eight MAFFS aircraft, which subsequently flew 945 sorties distributing a near-record 2.6 million gallons of fire retardant. Additionally, AFNORTH assisted the Department of Homeland Security’s resettlement of more than 55,000 Afghan evacuees from across four continents to eight U.S. safe havens as part of Operation ALLIES WELCOME.  The command sent a Director of Mobility Forces team to the Dulles and Philadelphia International Airports. Supported by a Regional Air Movement Control Center at Tyndall, they coordinated one of the largest air evacuations in our nation’s history. Furthermore, with COVID cases continuing to strain the capacity of many civilian hospitals, our staff deployed and sustained thousands of Airmen to augment civilian health care facilities across the country. Moreover, the official U.S. Air Force auxiliary, Civil Air Patrol (CAP), experienced another banner year, flying more than 10,000 sorties. Our CAP volunteers supported COVID relief, homeland defense, search and rescue, Air Force tactical training, FEMA imagery support, communication relays and law enforcement counter-drug missions. Finally, our Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) also had one of the busiest years in the unit’s 47-year history. The center coordinated with first responders 24/7/365 from coast to coast, preventing over 11,000 potential search and rescue incidents, and launching nearly 600 missions saving 332 lives.

We gained tremendous experience working alongside other agencies within the U.S. government, but First Air Force also partnered with Defense Forces from neighboring governments. In our Theater Security Cooperation mission, we play a significant role in improving the mutual security of all North American countries. Alongside our Mexican counterparts, our staff planned and executed the cross-border air defense exercise, AMALGAM EAGLE, which evaluated our ability to detect, intercept and hand-off nefarious targets between Mexican and U.S. command and control sectors. We also coordinated the deployment and sustainment of USAF’s support to the Mexican Air Force’s National Airshow – including some very challenging last-minute changes.

In this historic year, First Air Force answered the call to bolster our national defense and national resiliency. We executed our missions – new and old – in a resounding display of the Air Force core values “Service Before Self” and “Excellence in All We Do.” I am proud of our efforts. I am proud of our accomplishments… and I speak on behalf of all of us at First Air Force when I say how grateful we are to serve the peoples of North America. I look forward to the New Year in eager anticipation of even greater things to come.