Col. John Knable was named commander of the 178th Wing at the Springfield Air National Guard base.

New Springfield commander to prep base for new drone mission

The Springfield Air National Guard Base will get a new leader today as it prepares to take the next steps in its surveillance and intelligence missions in the coming years.

Col. John Knabel will take command of the 178th Wing from Col. Bryan Davis, who is retiring after serving one year in the position. Local officials credited Davis with leading through a time of transition and said Knabel appears to be a good fit as the base prepares to transition from the MQ-1 Predator drone to the MQ-9 Reaper.

“The missions we’re doing are cutting edge,” Knabel said. “I don’t see that demand diminishing.”

The Springfield base is critical to the area’s economy, generating about $59 million in payroll last year. About 300 airmen work full-time at the base, but total employment is closer to 1,100, including traditional members of the Guard who work part-time.

The Predator is being phased out, Knabel said, and the 178th is expected to transition to the Reaper by 2018. The 178th recently began sending pilots and sensor operators to train to fly the Reaper.

Along with its intelligence mission, the base is well-positioned in the case of a potential Base Realignment and Closure process, Knabel said.

One of the challenges of the new position will be to ensure all operators and pilots are adequately trained for the Reaper mission in time for the transition, he said.

The surveillance missions conducted using the drones will remain largely the same, but the Reaper carries a larger payload, Knabel said. Predators carry a single Hellfire missile. Once that is used, the drones either need to return to base or continue with a surveillance-only role.

The Reapers are larger, faster and can carry up to four Hellfire missiles, as well as laser-guided bombs.

The base commander is an important position because the Air National Guard is a major employer and an economic engine locally, said Mike McDorman, president and CEO of the Chamber of Greater Springfield.

“We keep a close eye on the activities at the base,” McDorman said. “Obviously base commanders coming in are very important and the work they do is important not only to our area but to our country.”

Clark County Commissioner Richard Lohnes, a retired F-16 pilot and former Springfield base commander, said Davis did a good job leading the base over the past year. Davis is also a former F-16 pilot who oversaw the base’s mission flying the Predator before taking over command of the wing.

“He’s been there going through the great shift from airplane to drones and he’s done a remarkable job in that transition to take that operations group into a new era,” Lohnes said. “He has just come to a point in his life where he had some opportunities beyond the Air Force and he’s been more than eligible for retirement as an active duty colonel.”

Davis was unavailable for comment Friday.

Knabel has served as 178th Wing vice commander for seven months, but he has 28 years of military service. He joined the U.S. Marines after graduating from Purdue University. He flew the F/A-18 Hornet, where he was deployed on an aircraft carrier.

He also flew commercial jets for American Airlines while also flying F-16s part-time for the Air National Guard in Indiana. He later served as both deputy group commander and intelligence support squadron commander for the 181st Intelligence Wing based in Terra Haute, Ind.

Knabel said there were several factors that led him to take the position in Springfield, including the base’s intelligence mission and the facilities. Knabel’s wife is also from northeast Ohio, he said, allowing her to be closer to home. He said he’s impressed with the quality of his staff at the Springfield facility.

“If I had to put my resume when I was 22 years old against the resumes of the 22-year-olds on this base, they wouldn’t have even looked at me,” Knabel said.

The Springfield base also will focus on strengthening its ties to the National Air and Space Intelligence Center on the intelligence side as well, Knabel said. He credited Davis and other leaders on the base as the 178th has taken on new and challenging roles in recent years.

“We’ve quickly gone from being the students to being the experts in the field for any of the Springfield missions,” he said.

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