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Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing to deploy to Afghanistan

STEVE KUCHERA skuchera@duluthnews.com Nearly 300 members of Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing will deploy to Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, for two months beginning in August to provide close-air support to ground troops. The deployment will mark sev...

Block 50 F-16
Captain Nick Haussler prepares to land one of the Block 50 F-16 aircraft at the Duluth's Air National Guard Base. (2010 file / News Tribune)

STEVE KUCHERA

skuchera@duluthnews.com

Nearly 300 members of Duluth's 148th Fighter Wing will deploy to Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, for two months beginning in August to provide close-air support to ground troops.

The deployment will mark several firsts for the 148th. It will be the wing's first overseas deployment with its new Block 50 F-16s. It also will be the first time the 148th has sent an aviation package -- planes, pilots, maintenance and support personnel -- to Afghanistan. And it will be the first time 179th Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Chris Blomquist will be in command in combat.

He considers the deployment an honor and an opportunity.

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"I am looking forward to helping the troops on the ground and to a safe return of all our people," he said after a Thursday morning news conference at the base announcing the deployment.

"I have the best and the brightest working for me; that should make the job easier," he said.

Among the people deploying is Tech. Sgt. Melissa Griffith. A 6½-year-veteran of the wing, this will be her first overseas deployment.

"I'm excited for the opportunity," she said. "It will be a great learning and training experience I can use down the road."

Griffith's husband, father and an uncle also will deploy to Afghanistan.

"I'm very confident we can carry out our mission and make it back home," she said.

Also deploying is Lt. Col. Rob Roningen, commander of the 148th maintenance squadron. A 31-year veteran, he estimates he has deployed more than 20 times since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, alone. He received a Bronze Star in 2004 for his "ceaseless leadership and mentoring" while a maintenance squadron commander in Kyrgyzstan from November 2003 to March 2004. He advises his people, especially the less experienced, to practice the wingman concept of "watching out for your buddy."

"A lot of it is staying focused; be aware of your surroundings, work hard and we'll get through it," he said.

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As maintenance squadron commander, it is Roningen's responsibility to keep the wing's fighters flying.

"I'm feeling confident about those planes," he said of the wing's Block 50 F-16s. Worth about $30 million each, the Block 50s are as much as 13 years newer than the Block 25s the 148th was flying up to two years ago, with upgraded electrical systems, greater computer capacity and a more-powerful engine.

After receiving the first of the new fighters in April 2010, the wing's pilots began learning how to fly SEAD and DEAD missions -- military acronyms pronounced "seed" and "deed" -- standing for Suppression of Enemy Air Defense and Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses. The new missions required 148th pilots to switch from a mindset of dropping bombs to support ground forces to destroying or jamming air defenses to allow other planes to perform that task safely.

Earlier this year, after nearly two years of training in the new fighters and shortly after an intensive three-week-long combat training exercise, the 148th was declared fully mission-capable.

"After two years mastering the Block 50 F-16 and the Suppression of Enemy Air Defense mission, the Air Force has tasked our wing to deploy," Col. Frank Stokes, 148th Fighter Wing Commander, said.

For this deployment, however, the wing's mission remains one it has done for years -- directly supporting ground troops.

In addition to the Afghanistan deployment, the 148th will continue to send small groups to Southwest Asia to help with ongoing missions, Blomquist said.

Members of the 148th deployed overseas a number of times in recent years before receiving the Block 50s, including deployments of planes, pilots and support personnel to Joint Base Balad in Iraq in 2005, 2007 and 2008.

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In December 2009, the first of approximately 90 members of the unit deployed overseas for six months of service at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. A smaller number of security forces deployed to Southwest Asia in early November 2009.

Beginning in September 2008, the 148th deployed more than 300 of its members to multiple locations. Most went to Balad Air Base, Iraq. In other deployments earlier that year 413 members of the wing deployed to 10 countries for assignments with other units.

In early 2007, the unit sent approximately 450 airmen to Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations.

In May 2005, 430 wing members served in Afghanistan and Iraq, with many serving in Balad.

"It's going to be a new challenge for us," Roningen said of flying in Afghanistan. "Since we have not been in that location, we will rely on our experiences in Iraq. We'll be fine."

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