AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- Another chapter of Air Force history came to a close July 3 at Aviano Air Base as the 603rd Air Control Squadron called "Primo," the unit call sign, for the last time before the unit is inactivated.
The 603rd ACS, one of two Air Force theater air control systems in Europe, is being inactivated as part of a larger U.S. Air Force effort to save more than $28 billion in the next five years.
"I am incredibly proud and honored to be the commander of these fine men and women as they perform their final duties as (members of the 603rd ACS)," said Lt. Col. Stephen Carocci, the commander of the 603rd ACS. "Although we are (inactivating) the 603rd, the squadron isn't viewing this as the end, just a closing of a chapter."
Since the squadron's reactivation in 1991 as the 603rd ACS, the squadron of more than 300 Airmen has brought its unique capabilities to every location the squadron has deployed to.
From the Balkans supporting Operations Deny Flight, Deliberate Force and Allied Force, to current Operations like Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and support to the 2008 presidential visit to Africa, the 603rd ACS "Scorpions" have showcased their unique capability to "strike" where needed.
"What makes us unique is our self-sufficiency that is apparent in our day-to-day operations here at Aviano (Air Base)," said Tech. Sgt. Joel Bickle, a 603rd ACS digital systems section chief. "With exception to the land we are sitting on, we are a completely self-reliant force that can pack up and deploy anywhere, whether that is a fully built-up base or a small field in the middle of nowhere, to deliver our capability to the warfighters."
The air control squadron is composed of more than 20 officers and 280 enlisted Airmen. It has more than 20 Air Force specialties, ranging from supply Airmen to the operators controlling the aircraft and everything in-between to make them a self-sufficient force with worldwide capabilities.
The squadron provides air assets a clear mission picture through its command and control capability using Tactical Air Operations Modules -- small trailers that house the equipment that keeps the pilots in the air in touch with the operator's inside.
These small containers, capable of being packed and forward deployed to any area, are the secret to the unit's worldwide capability. Since most deployed locations have already built up a full infrastructure, there is little need for this capability in most cases.
The last instance that the full TAOM system was deployed was during the 2008 presidential visit to Africa.
"Although I am sad to see the 603rd (ACS) being (inactivated), I am truly honored to be a part of the final mission here at Aviano," said Staff Sgt. Erik Kalanquin, a 603rd ACS weapons director and one of the last people in the Air Force to use the call sign "Primo". "Although this capability is leaving Aviano, the experience we have gained working here will strengthen the air control community Air Force wide."
For many of the operators in the 603rd ACS, this will likely ring true as they go on to other air control squadrons in Germany, the Pacific theater or head back to the U.S., but for many support Airmen the change back to traditional Air Force units will take some adjusting.
"We are a big family here; it doesn't matter if you are a vehicle maintainer, supply troop, radio maintenance or one of the operational guys, we all have a special bond," said Staff Sgt. Fernando Reyes, a material control supervisor for the 603rd ACS. "Going back to a normal squadron will take some getting used to after having this strong sense of community."
Although the squadron's mission on Aviano AB is complete, there is still one final task for the Airmen to succeed at before the squadron is officially inactivated in the spring of 2013: one final deployment.
The deployment, which began July 5, will see the roughly 150 members of the 603rd ACS doing what they have perfected during the last 20 years -- delivering air power to those who need it on the ground in deployed locations throughout Southwest Asia.
"To know that what you are doing is directly helping our brothers and sisters who are on the ground in life or death situations, there is nothing like it," Bickle said.
Members not deploying will begin the bittersweet task of breaking down the equipment to be sent to other units that will take over the squadron's responsibilities.
"Although the 603rd is (inactivating), I hope at some point the Scorpion strike is seen again in the future of our Air Force," Carocci said. "This squadron provides a unique opportunity to all those fortunate enough to be a part of it, and we will carry that on with us to our future assignments forever."