Year of the Defender

By BGen Andrea D. Tullos

The holiday season is upon us and that means those of you up north are wishing you were down south, and those of you down south are wishing all those northerners who managed to escape the cold would head back north – haha! Wherever you are reading this from, we hope you had a safe, happy holiday and that you had a chance to enjoy the spirit of the season with friends and family. It’s time now to get back after it – it’s the Year of the Defender. You read that right – it’s the Year of the Defender.

You may have heard that already since our Chief of Staff, General Goldfein made the announcement back in September. We still come across quite a few people who missed the announcement and even more who don’t really know what it means, so we thought we’d take the opportunity to spread the word and make sure everyone understands that the Year of the Defender involves you too. Yes, you, the Airman who retired years ago; and you, the Airman who did one enlistment and then moved on to apply those skills to whatever you chose to do next; and you, the Airman who is a Defender today and thinks that means you’re good to go already – not so fast.   And what about your Wingman in the civil engineering squadron who teaches other Airmen how to wear their chemical gear? Yes, them too--and a whole lot more.

I get asked regularly what “The Year of the Defender” means and I’m resistant to distill the explanation into 3-second sound bytes, slogans, or strings of catchy phrases that sound good but lack substance. Our Chief of Staff is asking us to spend this year rededicating ourselves as Airmen (big A) to the notion that our installations are our power projection platforms and if we don’t secure and defend these platforms, we will not be capable of projecting airpower, which is our reason for existing as an Air Force. For the retirees and veteran readers who are wondering why this is anything new and why we need to be reminded of this fact, I would offer that while this notion has existed since we were born as a Service in 1947, we are now faced with an environment where we make no distinction between how we operate overseas and how we operate in the homeland. The world is now smaller and while the term “in garrison” still remains a relevant construct when it comes to dispersed operations, forward operating bases, contingency operating bases, and main operating bases, we no longer make this distinction in terms of how we posture our defense forces to operate in our designated battle spaces. This presents challenges for us as we attempt to balance the need to distinguish the small unmanned aerial system that may be delivering that holiday gift to your door step from the system that may seek to conduct surveillance of our flight line operations or place our sortie generation timelines at risk while we clear the airspace. This presents challenges at our installation access control points as we try to distinguish the distracted driver whose Google Maps system is telling them to cut through the base they had no intention of entering from the foreign national who is attempting to “piggy back” onto the base during peak traffic when that Defender might be task saturated. While we don’t hesitate to engage our barrier systems when a vehicle blows past the gate at high speed, we also want our young Defenders at the perimeter to be able to exercise discretion when they observe that familiar elderly gentleman with the expired vehicle registration tags on the windshield of his now classic Pontiac slow crawl through the gate toward the Commissary as he does every Tuesday, where a traffic stop and verbal briefing will suffice. And while we consider what the new operating environment means for our Defenders, we are spending as much if not more time focused on what it means for the rest of the Defenders on the base – and that means everyone.

Those of us who have been around a while remember those major exercises and inspections – your sector received intelligence build up over 24-48 hours, some probing fire, your observation and listening posts spotted surveillance on the perimeter, and then the mortars came. Preparatory fires for what you knew was coming. Well, today those preparatory fires come in the form of malicious code and cyber attacks and your airfield operations are disrupted when the air tasking order is hacked, your critical spare parts are shipped to the wrong location because the enemy is inside your system, and your critical systems are pushed onto generator power because the grid was attacked. The Defense Force Commander’s tactical response force is not going to be of much assistance in these cases, so we reiterate that we’re all Defenders now. Changing our perception of preparatory fires is step one, and sensitizing everyone who has a role in integrated defense to report new categories of indicators and warnings are essential to keeping us prepared for what might come next.

The Year of the Defender is a combination of taking us back to our roots and growing new ones. We need to get better at old fashioned land navigation and terrain association because that GPS system might not be available. We need our partners across the base to let us know if any of their computer systems don’t seem to be working quite right. We need every unit to know how to kick on that generator they walk past each day on the way into their facility. And we need everyone to think, sense, and react as if they’re deployed to the most forward operating base, even if they’re stationed in the heartland of the USA.   And for those of you who put the beret on the shelf years ago, we need your help too. Pay attention when you’re coming through that entry control point—and let that young Defender know if you see something amiss. For those of you who come onto the base to hit the BX, Commissary, clinic, golf course, and all those other recreational facilities, remind yourself that you’re our force multiplier. Trust your instincts and let us know if something doesn’t seem right. Keep sharing your stories with those Defenders you run into – many of them have not deployed, most have not experienced a full blown operational readiness exercise, and only the crustiest of us can tell stories about what REFORGER exercises were like back in the day. Well, they’re starting to feel a little bit familiar.  

Yes, it’s the Year of the Defender. Let’s make it a year to remember.

Defensor Fortis!


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San Antonio, TX
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23-27 September 2020