Interview with col. John W. Thompson - 160th SOAR OIC


running up that hill
Jan 3, 2007
in Wonderland, with my Alice

Colonel John W. Thompson, a native of Augusta, Ga., was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army upon graduation from North Georgia College in 1987.
Upon completion of the Aviation Officer Basic and OH-58 Aircraft Qualifications courses at Fort Rucker, Ala., in 1988, he was assigned to 4th Squadron, 2d Armored Cavalry Regiment, Feucht, Germany. His assignments included Aeroweapons Platoon Leader, Aeroscout Platoon Leader and Squadron Assistant Operations Officer.
Thompson has since served in a variety of aviation and special operations positions to include troop commander and division aviation plans officer, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Ky.; Platoon Leader, Special Mission Unit liaison officer and company commander, 1st Bn., 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), Fort Campbell, Ky.; executive officer, 82nd Aviation Brigade and operations officer, 2nd Bn. 82nd Aviation Bde., Fort Bragg, N.C.; joint planner, Joint Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, N.C.; and squadron commander, 4th Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 1st Squadron, 6th Cavalry Regiment, Fort Carson, Colo. He most recently graduated from the U.S. Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.
He is a combat veteran of operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and has multiple deployments in support of Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom.
Thompson’s military awards and decorations include the Bronze Star Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, the Air Medal with numeral two, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, the Combat Action Badge, the Master Army Aviator Badge, the Parachutist Badge and the Air Assault Badge.

Q: Let’s jump in and talk about the physical growth of the 160th. Changes in 2008 created identical organization structure in the battalions. How are things going in bringing everything up to operational strength?
A: This is a great place to start. The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) has made steady progress on both strategic realignment of current assets and growth of personnel and equipment during the past two years.
We now have nearly 3,000 soldiers serving in our ranks, keeping us on track to meet our current approved growth of 3,600 by 2015. We anticipate our MH-47G model Chinook fielding to be complete next spring, and our MH-60M model Black Hawk fielding to be complete in 2015.
Reorganization of our current assets for three of our four line companies to have identical organizational structure is also making great progress. Our 4th Battalion on the West Coast now has a fully operational Black Hawk helicopter company supporting both combat and training missions around the globe. Our 2nd Battalion in Kentucky will begin incorporating Black Hawk helicopters in late 2011.

Q: Last year, there was a spotlight on the call for more special operations rotary wing assets in Afghanistan. At an operator level, was there a real need for additional platforms? If so, has the requirement gap been filled or are there still things in the works to bridge the gap?
A: There is definitely a demand beyond our means for additional helicopter support to ongoing and increasing special operations missions around the world. As special operations ground forces grow, the demand for aerial support to complete their missions naturally increases. This gap is not unique to special operations units. We are working with leaders at all levels and across different organizations to address this challenge. Specifically for Afghanistan, there is a plan for us to increase support incrementally as the regiment grows combat power by fielding additional aircraft while simultaneously training and progressing fully mission qualified crews.

Q: Do you have any interest or a need for a new airframe like the UH-72A or others?
A: We are always interested in any aircraft innovation that allows us to add value to the special operations ground forces we support. There have been several recent developments that allow rotary aircraft to increase speed, capacity and safety.
Right now, our current fleet of aircraft still affords us the right mix of light, medium and heavy airframes. We are in a continuous planning and execution cycle of modification and modernization; this is very much a process and not an event. Special operations aviation relies on the creative, innovative nature of the aerospace industry and we monitor their efforts closely. Each advance is another input into our decision cycle for future capabilities.

Q: Recently the 160th gained a new component in the quick reaction capability, operating unmanned aerial vehicles. Do you see this as the first step in an expansion of UAS capabilities within the regiment and USASOC?
A: The newly formed E Company, 160th SOAR (A), or quick reaction capability, provides USASOC with a much-needed, organic, extendedrange unmanned aerial systems capability. The QRC will have a habitual relationship with a Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force embedded processing/exploitation/dissemination element. This will provide the ground force commander with intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and fires assets during critical moments in combat. Our experience in forming the QRC will aid in future acquisition of additional, permanent UAS units assigned to the Army Special Operations Aviation Command.

Q: Aging aircraft are certainly an issue in the Air Force. Is it an issue for you? What are some of the more important programs you run your helicopters through to keep them airworthy and modernized? Do you see any problems with aircraft reaching their end of serviceable life before a replacement program is ready?
A: Age certainly is a challenge for any aviation outfit. Nine years of combat operations have accelerated our fleet’s aging process. Aircraft age is not only a factor of time, but a combination of flight regimes, environments, mission tasks and attention to maintenance. Because we have been continuously deployed, our maintenance experts recognized this aging process and implemented several programs such as reset and deep-cycle maintenance procedures during scheduled maintenance events. These initiatives have slowed the aging process.
The 160th continues to modernize our fleet through a rotating block modification program. We recognize the importance of maintaining the technological edge and seek ways to continually enhance the crew members’ abilities to keep the aircraft serviceable. Using the Special Operations Forces Support Activity located in Lexington, Ky., our aircraft rotate through an upgrade program approximately every three years. One example of a technology insertion is the health and usage monitoring system. This system gives aircrews and maintainers continual awareness of the health and state of the aircraft allowing for preventative rather than reactive maintenance.
The fleet’s serviceable life is not simply reflected by an end date. As the aircraft are strained, their maintenance will inevitably become more intensive. Like all complex systems, this will become evident by increased repair cost and reduced availability. Each service faces this challenge and develops strategies for fleet modification and modernization based on overall priorities.
Q: Last I knew, you had five combat mission simulators. Is this enough to meet your current demands? Do you have a simulator roadmap that plots out a long term acquisition strategy for your simulators?
A: Regiment still has five configurable simulators located at Fort Campbell. Simulator time remains in high demand and is intensively managed, ensuring maximum utility to meet our unique training needs. We are currently researching options to provide on-site simulation training systems for our units located at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Requirements for training systems are included in continuous force modernization analysis within the regiment. Our simulator acquisition roadmap parallels our aircraft acquisition roadmap. Each reflects a balance of modernization and modification, based on mission needs and the resource environment. We strive to sustain 100 percent cockpit concurrency with our flight line aircraft.

Q: Night Stalkers—the name really says it all. Is the current state-of-the-art in night vision getting the job done for you? What enhancements are you most interested in being brought forward for your operators?
A: Night vision goggles [NVGs] are still our primary tool for night vision and will be in the foreseeable future. We are currently using third generation devices and have looked at generation 3+ types of NVGs. The next step is potentially going to be synthetic vision, which will combine our optics and optic systems. Whether it is forward-looking infrared, thermal, day/night TV or radar has yet to be seen. A likely solution will be a combination of at least two of those system types to provide our warfighters the ability to see inside bad weather, dust and other battlefield obscurations. Industry is always trying to improve our night fighting capability. With that said, the ability to conduct brownout takeoffs and landings and get to and from the objective in deteriorated weather conditions continues to be among our main concerns.
Currently all of the regiment’s aircraft have the ability to mount a sensor device for enhanced night fighting capability. Our MH-47 Chinooks and MH-60 Black Hawks can fly in visibility that would ground most other conventional aircraft. They are equipped with both radar and infrared sensors. The regiment continuously prods industry with our needs and desires to keep Night Stalkers on the leading edge of the night fight.

Q: Let’s go back to your growth for a minute. How is the 160th doing in retaining its pilots and mechanics and not losing them to other services or the commercial industry?
A: The regiment is retaining a vast number of our experienced aviators and crew members. We are always conscious of the fact that many of our aviators are at or near 20 years of military service. Even at those mature lengths of military service, more than 60 percent of our warrant officer pilots are currently committed by a service obligation. Fortunately we are able to offer our warrant officer aviators and enlisted crewmembers on flight status special retention bonus options that are reflective of their invaluable Night Stalking experience and commitment to the SOAR mission.
Like any organization, we do experience normal attrition from things like changes of duty station, end of service and retirement.

Q: Are there areas of research and development that are of particular interest to the 160th?
A: Yes. At the system level, we are interested in advances in transparent armor solutions that are light enough for rotorcraft application. We have a keen interest in emerging technology using multi-spectral sensors for night vision devices, obstacle avoidance and aircraft survivability against guided and unguided threats. For instance, solutions to aid flight in a degraded visual environment will likely require the seamless integration of more than one sensor technology, such as some combination of electro-optical, radar, laser or infrared. We are also interested in self-forming networks for airborne data transfer between manned and unmanned systems [that can work with or without satellite connectivity] to share imagery, full motion video, ASE-derived tactical situation and other aircraft data. Finally, we are always interested in technologies that increase aircraft performance and those that reduce our visual, acoustic and infrared signatures.

Q: Since the 160th has been actively engaged in combat operations for a third of its existence, what is the enduring factor that allows the regiment to maintain its high operational tempo?
A: There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the greatest asset in this regiment is the overwhelming number of talented and dedicated soldiers of the 160th. From our fearless pilots and crews to our innovative and tireless maintainers and support staff, to our dedicated and experienced civilian employees, this regiment runs day and night on the strength of their character and commitment. They continuously plan, adapt and successfully execute complex and dangerous missions worldwide. While it is entirely true that we are provided with the best aircraft, equipment and technology available, at the end of the day they are merely tools to be utilized by the irreplaceable soldiers who we call Night Stalkers. Night Stalkers don’t quit!