A C-130 Hercules assigned to Little Rock AFB, Ark., takes off from JB Lewis-McChord, Wash., during the exercise. Photos: A1C Erin McClellan; SAC Nicholas Egan/RAF
Hundreds of 82nd Airborne paratroopers, packed into 19 C-130s, jumped into central Washington state in August, with the goal of “retaking” a captured airfield. They were preceded into the target area by 13 C-17s that were hastily but expertly loaded with combat gear, and together they were escorted by a package of frontline combat jets including brand-new F-35s.
Mobility Guardian, the largest international air transport exercise of the modern era, was on.
Against a backdrop of skies laden with smoke from nearby forest fires, Mobility Guardian played out over more than two weeks, with JB Lewis-McChord, Wash., as its hub. The Air Mobility Command (AMC) event was a reincarnation of the old Air Mobility Rodeo canceled in 2013 because of the budget sequester, now reborn as a much more combat-oriented drill. Rather than put smaller numbers of ground and air crews through loading and launching races or “elephant walks” to earn proficiency trophies, the exercise practiced large-scale, nonstop, real-world scenarios reminiscent of Air Combat Command’s Red Flag.
Two years of planning went into the event, which flexed every “muscle” in AMC and gave every indication of being a thorough success.
“It’s one big scenario that focuses on every aspect of our mobility air forces portfolio,” said Col. Johnny LaMontagne, the combined forces air component commander for the exercise.
Red Flag was indeed the model for Mobility Guardian, LaMontagne said. The objective was to drill every aspect
of AMC’s mission set and “train like we fight.”
More than 65 aircraft flew in and out of multiple bases in the region. While Lewis-McChord was the central base, others in the wargames included Fairchild AFB, Wash.; Moses Lake Arpt., Wash.; and Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. More than 3,000 personnel took part, and two dozen international partners either participated with their own aircraft or came to observe.
“We’re going to do this as a partnership,” said Brig. Gen. Brian Robinson, the director of operations for headquarters Air Mobility Command, in a first-day welcome briefing at McChord.
On the first night, C-130s launched from McChord and headed out on a joint forcible-entry drill to get things started. The C-17s that took off earlier linked up with aerial tankers, carrying equipment to be airdropped at the Army’s Yakima Training Center in south central Washington.
The C-130s, coming from every component of the Air Force as well as from several international partners, flew in over the Pacific Ocean and up through the range at Mountain Home. The range put on a simulated defense by a near-peer adversary. The C-130s were escorted to the drop zone by F-15Es, A-10s, F-35s, and Navy EA-18G Growler electronic warfare jets. The fighters helped “mitigate those threats for us, clear a path, and let us accomplish our objectives,” LaMontagne said.
Throughout the exercise, mobility and combat aircraft collectively flew about 90 joint sorties.
The paratroopers, from Ft. Bragg, N.C., jumped over the airport in the central Washington city of Moses Lake about six hours after takeoff, seizing it from an “enemy” force and setting up for future mobility operations.
For two weeks, the strip then served as a simulated austere location where aeromedical evacuation teams operated, aided by contingency response airmen. It hosted dozens of flights per day.
Moses Lake, Like Iraq
Moses Lake sits in the state’s Columbia Basin, largely dry from the rain shadow cast by the Cascade Mountains to the west. The airport’s flight line is surrounded by rugged brush.
For the airmen of the 821st Contingency Response Group, holed up in tents and surrounded by Humvees and soldiers, it was a familiar setting.
“In this environment here at Moses Lake, it is probably as close to [feeling like] Iraq as I can imagine,” said Col. Justin Niederer, commander of the 821st from Travis AFB, Calif. “The temperatures, the dust, … the coalition members on the ground here, and the flying aircraft. This is not very different from how we conduct operations.”
The setting was chosen deliberately. Representatives from USAF’s contingency response forces helped plan the exercise, based on lessons learned from Iraq and Syria. The airmen have been busy as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, setting up austere airfields like Qayyarah West in Iraq during the campaign toward Mosul, and one near Kobani in Syria in advance of the push to Raqqa.
The airmen often work closely with soldiers from the 82nd, so their duties in Mobility Guardian mirrored their regular operations in current wars.
Before the exercise, Niederer asked who had been deployed and who had not. About half the airmen were experienced with deployments, and again, this was purposeful, so the veterans could mentor the newbies.
In a typical deployment scenario, an eight-man contingency response team will be the first in after a main seizure group, such as the 82nd Airborne or Army Rangers, take the airfield. After the green light, about 130 airmen from across 23 different Air Force specialty codes move in and get the airstrip running for operations. Every airman does double duty, fulfilling their turnkey specialties but also providing security to augment the 26 or so dedicated security forces airmen in case of an attack.
It’s a highly disciplined group that’s been performing as expected during Operation Inherent Resolve, Niederer said. The group is right-sized to work with special operations and other types of units to move airpower closer to where it is needed, he said.
Early in the exercise, the contingency response airmen helped control multiple flights from USAF and Royal Australian Air Force C-17s, along with a UK Royal Air Force A400M. US Army Strykers, Humvees, and soldiers were loading onto the jets following the simulated airfield seizure.
“Our airmen are getting access to, and experience in, a joint operation to a level they couldn’t get in any exercise we could build ourselves,” Niederer said.
Units across AMC were urged to send some of their younger crews to Mobility Guardian to get them working alongside seasoned hands, Lt. Col. Jeremy Wagner, director of the exercise, pointed out.
Air Mobility Rodeo, conversely, had focused on the most experienced ground and flight crews, because it was a competition and units wanted to send their best in order to win.
There was a “whole lot of money, a whole lot of training time” devoted to “a small number of crews,” LaMontagne said. In contrast, Mobility Guardian gives younger airmen a chance to fly intense flight operations and “really wring out the jet,” he said.
“We wanted to get as far away from rodeo as possible,” Wagner said. “We treated it like a chain: You are only as strong as your weakest link. If we can improve our least-qualified people, our least-experienced people, [and] raise the floor of their core capabilities, we feel like that would have an incredible impact on the force’s readiness as a whole.”
The younger officers were doing the flying. The more senior participants helped with planning, and as a result, the exercise’s White Cell—planners in the command center—said it was “as good as it gets,” according to Wagner. The exercise gave AMC a chance to practice mission sets that it doesn’t usually get a chance to fly.
Some of the C-130s stopped over at Fairchild for a chance to do hot defueling, where crews offload the fuel from the aircraft onto a truck for use at an austere location. The tactic has seen only limited use in current operations, but on the Fairchild flight line, a C-130 and crews from Little Rock AFB, Ark., practiced the tactic before a planned deployment, said SMSgt. Chris Dobbertin, the 92nd Logistics Readiness Squadron superintendent at Fairchild.
Two engines were run on one side of the C-130 as airmen linked up a connection to an R-11 refueling truck to offload fuel. In a real-world event, a C-130 can receive fuel from a tanker, land at a forward operating base, and provide fuel via a truck to deployed aircraft such as attack helicopters without having to shut off its engines.
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The US rarely fights alone, and the “train like we fight” adage meant bringing in allied country air forces. Eleven nations went to the wargames: Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Colombia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Korea, and Taiwan. They sent planes such as A400s, C-130s, C-17s, and CASA 295s.
Observers came from Argentina, Austria, Bangladesh, Gabon, Germany, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Senegal, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates.
Mobility Guardian was the largest exercise to date for the Airbus A400s and marked the first time an RAF squadron had deployed the aircraft for an exercise. The type began service with the RAF in 2014 and its crews are still preparing it for operations overseas, said Wing Cmdr. Ed Horne, Number 70 Squadron commanding officer from RAF Brize Norton, UK.
The exercise showed partners that the airlifter “is a really capable platform,” he said in a news release. The event provided a way for A400 crews “to be meeting people from all over the world that we might well be operating with in a real-world scenario in the future,” Horne observed.
International aeromedical evacuation teams worked with those from USAF, and international security forces patrolled the Moses Lake flight line. The rest of the allied nations came along to watch and learn.
“There’s a spectrum of capabilities across the coalition, just like there is when we deploy forward,” LaMontagne said.
For about two weeks, the exercise ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week. During the few lulls of flight operations, the White Cell remained fully operational, and international partners were able to meet and share their tactics, techniques, and procedures, LaMontagne said. AMC aircrews rarely get the chance to train with coalition partners, and an exercise of this size gives them an ability to work together before a conflict instead of forming an alliance “on the fly,” he said.
Flight operations totaled about eight days, amounting to about 1,200 flight hours across 650 sorties. Some 1.2 million pounds of fuel were offloaded, while aerial port personnel processed 3,676 passengers and 4,911 tons of equipment. Aircrews dropped 356 paratroopers, 33 heavy vehicles, and about 300 container delivery system bundles.
AMC is now assessing lessons from the exercise and deciding whether it should be a yearly event.
“Mobility Guardian was about learning, discovery, and the opportunity to work as a part of a joint and coalition team,” said Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, the commander of Air Mobility Command, after the exercise drew to a close. “This exercise was an investment in ensuring our airmen are prepared to succeed in the most challenging environments and deliver the desired results across the globe.”