179th Cyberspace Wing officially formed in Mansfield on Saturday (Richland Source)

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MANSFIELD — Col. Darren Hamilton knows the history of the storied flying missions of the 179th Airlift Wing of the Ohio Air National Guard as well as anyone in Hangar 102 on Saturday afternoon.

A Bellville native, the current wing commanding officer joined the 179th as a C-130 crew chief 37 years ago, rising through the ranks after becoming a pilot in 1995. He became a colonel in 2017 and took over command of the 179th in 2021.

Safe to say, the 75-year flying mission of the local Air Guard unit is near and dear to the heart of a man who has spent more than 5,000 hours in the air as a military command pilot.

Focused on the new building 
But during a historic redesignation ceremony on Saturday — as the 179th officially became the first Air National Guard’s Cyberspace Wing — Hamilton encouraged the unit’s airmen to embrace the future inside a hangar that once housed their aircraft.

“This real smart guy named Socrates said the secret to change is to focus your energy not on fighting the old, but building the new,” Hamilton said during the half-hour ceremony that included remarks from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Mansfield native.

“It took me a while to get over the hump. I know some of you probably are still there. It’s tough to watch airplanes (leave) when you work on them, flew them and identified with them. You have got to get over that hump and build on the new energy,” Hamilton said.

“A lot of you have and I appreciate that.”

Hamilton pointed to the wing’s 175,000 hours of accident-free flying. 

“That’s a culture that we want to keep. That pride. I know we can do it,” he said during a military ceremony that included the traditional changing of the wing’s flag and unit guidons.

The 179th received word in August 2021 it would be the site of the first Air National Guard Cyberspace Wing. It had been a finalist along with the 133rd Airlift Wing in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

After the ceremony, Hamilton admitted saying goodbye to the eight C-130H aircraft in 2022 wasn’t easy.

“Personally, it’s almost like a grieving cycle. It was for a lot of people. First you’re angry and then you kind of give in and you kind of accept it and then you move on. To me, this ceremony today was getting us over the hump. We’re moving forward, we’re not looking backwards.

“For an old flyer, that’s kind of what I went through and I think a lot of other folks did that. But we’ve also had a lot of folks that have been able to transfer to other Guard units, other Reserve units, continue their flying careers and using those skills that they have,” Hamilton said.

‘At the center of the military’s cutting-edge cyber capabilities’

The new mission may safeguard the local military unit for many years to come. The 179th’s future has been cloudy in the past, targeted by previous Base Realignment and Closure Committees that threatened to end the local military operation that began in 1948.

There are nearly 90 flying units in the Air National Guard. But there is only one cyber unit, which makes the 179th more relevant for tomorrow’s fight than ever before, officials said.

Brown, joined by former U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Cincinnati), helped to lead the fight to bring the new mission to Mansfield when it became clear the Air Force planned to downsize its national C-130 fleet.

“That’s why when the Air Force announced that it wanted to reduce its inventory of C-130s, we went to work to make sure we not only secured the mission in Mansfield, it would be at the center of the military’s cutting-edge cyber capabilities.

Brown said the new mission continues “(Ohio’s) proud tradition of innovation in military aerospace leadership.”

“I’ve always fought for my hometown’s base. This new mission is creating jobs and bringing new, young talent to the region, it’s protecting our national security, and it’s continuing our community and our state’s proud tradition of innovation,” Brown said.

 “All of the Air National guardsmen and women at the 179th are carrying on Ohio’s legacy of military and aerospace leadership. I can’t wait to see how far you all will go, and how proud you will make Mansfield,” he said.

‘We’re in a momentous moment’

Brig. Gen. David Johnson, assistant adjutant general for air in the Ohio National Guard, said this is a “momentous moment” in the nation’s history. He praised the resiliency of the Mansfield community in its historical support for the 179th, which he said has been key in protecting its future.

Brig. Gen. David Johnson
Brig. General David Johnson speaks during the 179th’s redesignation ceremony in Mansfield. Credit: Carl Hunnell

“What is going to happen right now is Mansfield is solidifying its point in history,” Johnson said. “This is the most sustaining mission we have in the United States Air Force right now.

“So as we transition from the 75-year legacy of aviation excellence, how did that happen? It didn’t just happen. That that’s part of the reason why Mansfield was chosen for this special mission,” said Johnson, who began his own Air Guard career as a jet mechanic in 1986.

Johnson challenged the airmen standing in front of him.

“Look to your right and left. It’s on your shoulders. Everyone that’s serving now in the 179th today, we’re here celebrating your excellence. That’s why we have this vision today,” the general said.

Johnson spoke of the nation’s ongoing issues with China.

“We are in a fight today. When it comes to the future fight, this cyber technology, the Secretary of the Air Force, the Joint Force Commander, Lt. Gen. (Michael) Loh, the director of the (U.S.) Air National Guard, they are not thinking of air superiority specifically.

“They’re not thinking of the F-35. You know what’s on their minds and on their lips? Mansfield, Ohio. By name. This organization is going to lead the country in the future fight. I am so excited,” Johnson said.

“This wing is the tip of the spear.”

So what exactly is the 179th’s new mission?

North central Ohio residents no longer see the familiar, lumbering C-130 transport aircraft flying overhead. So while the unit maintains support groups like its security forces, medical personnel and firefighters, what is the new mission for the 179th Cyberspace Wing?

Hamilton said the wing will maintain its personnel of about 1,000 airmen, combining full-time and traditional Guard members. But the mission itself will likely remain a bit covert to the public.

“I would say we’re excited here in Mansfield because we’re still here in Mansfield. We’re still open,” he said with a laugh.

Col. Darren Hamilton
Col. Darren Hamilton addresses his airmen during a redesignation ceremony Saturday. Credit: Carl Hunnell

“We’re a wing that’s gonna produce leading-edge cyber effects in the next high-end conflict. That is just amazing because we would be at the leading edge. We’re not flying all the airplanes anymore, but we will help dominate the skies and have air superiority in the next fight. And our forces depend on us,” he said.

What exactly does that mean?

“It’s difficult because it is such an exquisite capability that is cutting edge. It is the future of war,” Johnson said.

“So to tell you what we do without telling you what we do is a difficult challenge we’ve been trying to navigate. There’s an analogy. It’s like a football team. So the cyber warriors are enabling the team to get into the endzone undetected and then get back to the sidelines safely and then re-engage in the fight and go back and wash, rinse and repeat,” the general said.