BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. – Airmen from the 140th Wing, Colorado Air National Guard became the first ANG unit to successfully execute an agile combat employment exercise, July 28, 2020, at Buckley Air Force Base, Aurora, Colorado.
ACE is one of the emerging strategies aimed at making the U.S. Air Force more flexible and adaptable in order to maximize efficiency and lethality in combat, U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Mike Horner, wing weapons manager, 140th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, said.
In a nutshell, the goal is to be able to forward deploy cargo aircraft, with a minimal number of personnel and equipment, to an austere location where they prepare to receive multiple fighter jets. Once the jets land, they refuel and reload their weapons with engines running, relaunch them and then pack up and redeploy as quickly as possible, Horner said.
“This capability will ultimately create an asymmetric and flexible war fighting capability that our combatant command leadership is currently asking for,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Banker, commander, 140 AMXS.
The ACE team is figuring out how to turn the concept into reality— “a daunting task requiring a multi-component operation across a geographically dispersed domain, obvious obstacles exist,” Banker said.
However, the 140th Wing ACE team faced the challenge head on.
“We decided to proceed with the exercise despite the additional challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Horner said. “The necessity for operational readiness doesn’t stop. Therefore, we need to continue to prepare for future aggressions by our adversaries, and we’re using the talents of all of our Airmen to do so.”
Beginning in January 2020, the team first worked through completing multiple integrated combat turns to streamline the process of refueling and reloading the 140th Wing’s F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft, with engines running, before launching them on their next training mission, Horner said.
This week, the team progressed to executing a complete ACE event. With the support of two C-130J Hercules aircraft from Little Rock Air Force Base, Little Rock, Arkansas, the ACE team loaded up the necessary equipment and took off, heading to a simulated remote airstrip. After landing, security forces personnel secured the airfield, and then the entire team worked together to unload equipment from the second C-130J and prepared for the arrival of the F-16s.
In order to minimize the operational footprint, the Airmen involved have to be multi-capable, Horner said. “In the ACE model, our multi-capable Airmen can turn four aircraft with twelve personnel, whereas traditionally, this would require more than 30 personnel with more robust tooling and support equipment.”
During this exercise, maintainers, fuel truck operators and security forces patrolmen augment each important phase of the ACE mission by performing tasks beyond their typical duties.
“Maintainers are being trained in basic air defense practices, crew chiefs are assisting with preparing and loading weapons, and weapons troops are launching jets. It’s truly a team effort every step of the way,” Horner said.
U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Tommy Fabian, aircraft maintenance technician, 140 AMXS, and multi-capable Airman, said the experience has been very positive. “I’m always open to learning new things and being able to contribute more to accomplishing our unit’s mission,” he said. “This is also increasing the teamwork and camaraderie between different sections.”
U. S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Aric McIntyre, loading standardization team chief, 140 AMXS, shared similar excitement.
“I used to have a pretty narrow view of our operations,” McIntyre said, “But as I’ve gotten more involved in the ACE/MCA programs, I have really been able to broaden my scope of what we, the Air Force, are capable of on a global scale and apply what our day-to-day means to the big picture.”
During the past six months, McIntyre and his team brought two members from the munitions shop and two crew chiefs into the load barn and trained them to be certified weapons load crew members.
“Maintaining weapons load crew certification requires many tedious hours of initial training followed by recurring monthly Minimum Required Proficiency Load evaluations,” McIntyre said. “Being able to integrate these members into load crews has been our biggest struggle and also our biggest success.”
Despite challenges along the way, during the exercise, the teams successfully recovered, reloaded and launched the F-16s with only a few areas for improvement, Fabian said.
“We learned things that will help streamline the process and the team is really starting to gel,” Fabian said. “I feel the team members are getting more comfortable with the additional roles and are looking out for each other.”
“The exercise was an absolute success,” McIntyre said. “(We) demonstrated the 140th’s ability to turn and reload aircraft just about anywhere in the world with the smallest possible footprint in an incredibly short amount of time.”
Banker realized that some of the most under-utilized strategic planning capacity exists in the wing’s senior Non-commissioned Officer corps.
“When challenged by leadership to demonstrate a concept known as agile combat employment, we had embedded in our Colorado Air National Guard, the flexibility, gumption and sheer will power to make this thing happen,” Banker said.
Colorado Air National Guardsmen may be uniquely well suited for the ACE mission because the majority of the force is only employed part-time militarily and frequently performs different civil jobs full-time.
“Even with fewer personnel, the combined skillset remains remarkably broad when you incorporate Citizen Airmen,” Horner said.
The 140th Wing ACE team will continue to work hard in preparation for another ACE event in September 2020, showcasing the new capability for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas.
According to Banker, the COANG is truly leading the drive into the future of combat operations.
“If you ask our Airmen to figure out how to do what has never been done, they will do it, and do it in an exemplary fashion.”