It’s early evening, and the heat of this 90 degree summer day is still oppressive. Yet you wouldn’t know it to look at the armed-up and black-clad Emergency Services Team (EST), whose members barely break a sweat as they force their way into an abandoned house on base and conduct a building clearing to find where a suspect has barricaded himself in a room. Lined up in a row, with one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them, the team breaks through the door and methodically fills the house, finds the threat, and neutralizes it.
Fortunately, in this case, no lives were at risk, because it was just a demonstration of the capabilities of what the EST gets called on to do. The EST team is Andrews’ own SWAT team. “Pretty much what we do is provide the [base] commander with more capabilities as far as hostage rescue, crowd control, bus assaults, vehicle assaults, and aircraft assaults,” says Tech Sgt. Eric Smith, the noncommissioned officer in charge.
This special weapons and tactics demonstration came at the end of the day because throughout the rest of the day the team had been engaged in an anti-hijacking exercise with multiple agencies, including the FBI and CIA, as part of the ongoing effort to be ready to handle any threat against Air Force One. (The exercise was considered too sensitive to observe.)
With his hair matted against his forehead, Smith explains what it takes to be part of an EST Team. Training occurs twice a month, so every member can familiarize himself or herself with each other’s responsibilities, an operational necessity. “If something were to happen to me, I know any one of these people can stay up, take over, and take care of business,” he says.
The team is on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s a tight-knit group, aided by the knowledge that every member volunteered for it. “We know we have people who want to be here, so there’s dedication and commitment to the team,” explains Smith.
While not all bases have EST teams, it makes sense for Andrews’ security forces considering Air Force One’s presence, their DV mission, and their size. “Some bases only have 150 security forces members, they may not have the capability to have a robust team,” Rector says. “With the numbers we have, it’s a lot easier for us to do.”
To expand their interoperability with other law enforcement agencies, the team takes advantage of the unique resources they have in the federal government’s backyard. In addition to the FBI and CIA, Andrew’s EST team has trained jointly with the Secret Service, the Maryland State Police, and local police departments, according to Smith.
Although Andrews EST team has never had to suit up for real, the base’s importance to U.S. national security combined with the heightened awareness of the active shooter threat makes the team a critical safeguard if something does go wrong, which does not seem as remote a risk in the wake of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s rampage at Fort Hood. Long trained in active- shooter response, the EST team would be a critical part of the response if a gunman went on a similar shooting spree anywhere on base.
As noted earlier, part of the SFG’s mission is to assist in security at bases in Afghan-istan and Iraq. At any given time, Rector says, an average of 10 to 15 percent of the squadron is deployed. This, of course, can make it difficult for the remaining squadron members to fulfill their domestic mission. That is why Andrews has outsourced and civilianized some duty; it is in an effort to take pressure off military personnel.
When stationed overseas, security forces perform many of the same tasks they do on bases inside the United States. They staff the gates, search vehicles for IEDs, patrol the base, and protect the flight line. They even run radar for speeders, says Rector, because “things normalize if they do that.” But unlike in the United States, they also “break wire,” or go outside the installation to hunt down possible threats to the base. (Inside the United States, the Posse Comitatus Act forbids military personnel from acting as police forces unless Congress or the President declares a national emergency.)
The rationale behind going “outside the wire,” says Rector, is simple: “Who better to push out and protect the air base than the folks that have responsibility for it?”
At military posts overseas there are two basic areas that must be protected: the base itself and the 10 to 20 kilometers around it. This is what the Air Force calls the “base security zone.”
When security forces break wire, they go into the areas surrounding the base to eliminate threats such as mortar attacks, a favorite tactic of insurgents.
It’s during these tense forays into the civilian population surrounding the base that security force members use the community policing skills they learned at home, says Harris. When home at Andrews, he deals with a multiplicity of characters to do his job effectively, such as local police, civilians, retirees, and high-ranking military officers. “You take that…and it gives you a base skill set when you get out there,” he says.
Harris estimates that the 65,000-strong population of Balad is split between support and hostility toward U.S. forces. Given that anyone encountered may be friend or foe, the patrols must think before they pull the trigger on civilians.
“It’s no more black and white, it’s very gray,” Harris explains. “You have to learn to live in the gray, and you have to learn to make judgment calls based on what’s happening at that current situation.”
Already a veteran of three tours of duty during five years of service, Harris can’t say whether or not he’ll deploy again. But he’s resolute. “Quite possibly,” he says. “If they need me to go, then I go.”
While acknowledging the stress it puts on his family, Harris says that he made the right decision in becoming part of the 11th SFG. “I love being a cop,” he says. “There’s nothing else in the Air Force I’d rather do.”
Across Andrews and Air Force installations overseas, there are many more airmen and women like him who fulfill a role many Americans probably don’t know exists. Handling everything from the mundane to the nerve-shaking, the members of the 11th SFG do their duty proudly so their comrades-in-arms can do theirs. Unsung, they sacrifice their lives to protect not only their Air Force brothers and sisters but the executive branch of the United States of America when it’s on the move and vulnerable.
Matthew Harwood is an associate editor at Security Management.