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Setting sail: Citizen Airman is first Reserve radar ship mission commander

AFTAC

Maj. Christina Light, an individual mobilization augmentee assigned to the Air Force Technical Applications Center, Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, stands in front of the U.S. Naval Ship Invincible. Light is the first Air Force Reservist certified as a mission commander on one of AFTAC’s radar ships. (Courtesy photo)

While many Airmen take to the skies, Reserve Citizen Airman Maj. Christina Light sets sail.

The space and missile operations officer, assigned to the Air Force Technical Applications Center Technical Operations Squadron as an individual mobilization augmentee, is the first Air Force Reservist certified to serve as a mission commander on one of the organization’s radar ships, the USNS Howard O. Lorenzen.

AFTAC, based at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida, performs nuclear treaty monitoring and nuclear event detection. AFTAC provides national authorities quality technical measurements to monitor treaty compliance. It also performs research and development of new proliferation detection technologies to enhance or assist treaty verification to limit the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Light first came to AFTAC as a contractor after 10 years on active duty. She left the active-duty Air Force in 2014 to be on the same continent as her husband and joined the Air Force’s traditional reserve program to continue serving in uniform. However, her reserve unit was a nine-hour commute, one way, and she didn’t feel like she could really be part of the unit. AFTAC indicated they wanted her support in both military and civilian status, so she transitioned into a vacant IMA billet in 2015.

IMAs are part of the Air Force Reserve’s Individual Reserve program and are assigned to augment active-component organizations and government agencies. Unlike traditional reservists, who drill one weekend a month and have two weeks of annual tour to complete, IRs work with their unit supervisors to create a custom duty schedule; they often complete their 24 to 36 days of requirements in one or two blocks of time.

Wanting to get more familiar with her new role, Light asked for active-duty orders so she could work in uniformed status full-time. After her request was granted, she realized she might have something to contribute to the ship mission.

According to Lt. Col. Don Wittenberg, the TOPS commander, his squadron didn’t have as many AD mission commanders as they would like, so when Light petitioned to become the first reserve mission commander, he welcomed the idea.

As a field grade officer, Light brought a maturity of leadership and expertise to the activ- duty mission commanders, who are more junior, said Wittenberg. Her augmentation also reduced the burden on the new officers coming into the program, allowing them time to focus on their spin-up training and qualifications rather than putting out to sea.

The USNS Lorenzen is operated by U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command to carry AFTAC’s state-of-the-art Cobra King mobile radar system wherever it’s needed. The radar is employed to provide worldwide, high quality, high resolution, multi-wavelength radar data to the Department of Defense’s strategic community, the Missile Defense Agency and other government agencies.

The radar and ship are the sea component of DoD’s Cobra program that monitors ballistic missile launches. Other Cobra platforms include the Cobra Ball (airborne tracker) and Cobra Dane (stationary array).
The ship operates with a crew of civilian mariners who are responsible for operating and navigating the ship, as well as civilian contractors who operate and maintain the radar and communications equipment.

Light’s first sea tour started in the spring of 2017 when the Lorenzen headed into U.S. Pacific Command. As the only Airman aboard, she was one-deep in her leadership role. It was her responsibility to ensure the platform team members were able to successfully collect mission data. In addition to daily mission taskings, she also worked closely with experts from MSC to develop a prioritized listing of necessary ship-related items to address whenever the vessel is in port or at the shipyard.

Even with all her certifications, Light said once in place, there was still a steep learning curve to the job. However, with a high operational tempo and a highly experienced team of contractors, it didn’t take long to learn the ropes. She was particularly impressed with the dedication and proficiency of the contractors.

“They go to sea for months on end, year after year, by choice. They have decades of experience,” she said.

Life on the ship was a new experience for the Reserve Citizen Airman.

She said the rhythm of the days was set by meals at the galley. Her state room -- living quarters and bath -- were attached to her office, which meant work was never far away. She also learned the importance of building a network of connections with the Navy officers around the fleet.

According to Wittenberg, the first time an Airman goes out on the ship he or she is like an outsider on an island. But, as a field grade officer, her leadership and experience enabled her to get right in there and get the mission done.

After returning from her first tour at sea, Light split her time between her contractor position and military orders. In mid-August 2017, she decided to leave her contractor job to focus on the military mission full-time and prepare for her next sea deployment on the USNS Invincible later this year.

“I love my career field, wearing the uniform and everything that goes along with it,” she said.

According to Wittenberg, his Reservist was recently selected to attend Intermediate Developmental Education in-residence via the CSAF’s Blue Horizons Program and will begin the next phase of her career, following her ship deployment.

“I am proud of what she has done. She has brought a lot to our squadron,” he said.

(Huffman is assigned to the Headquarters Individual Reservist Readiness and Integration Organization at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado.)