MISAWA AIR BASE, JAPAN—
Imagine this: F-16s flying over Draughon Range in Japan, pilots in a simulator in South Korea, ground targets showing up on everyone’s radar—and it’s all controlled by someone at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. Today, this kind of live, virtual, and constructive (LVC) training isn’t just possible, it’s likely.
Misawa is just the third base in the Air Force to get LVC capability, and the only one outside the United States. The technology makes Draughon Range—the only air-to-ground range on mainland Japan—“the premier range in the western Pacific,” according to Lt. Col. Ethan Rutell, director of operations with 35th Operations Support Squadron.
Twelve miles north of Misawa, running along the Pacific coast near the northernmost tip of Japan’s main island, the range has been in use since 1952. Unofficially dubbed Ripsaw Range, the Air Force changed its name over the years from Amagamori Range to the Misawa Air-to-Ground Gunnery and Bombing Range and, in 2003, to Draughon Range in honor of Navy Petty Officer Matthew Draughon, a diver lost at sea in 2001 during an operation to recover a Misawa aircraft that had crashed into the ocean nearby.
“Our range is probably the most adaptive, flexible, I would say, of any range around,” Rutell said. Pilots train here on strafing, bombing, rocketry, lasing, and air drops; combat search and rescue; survival, evasion, resistance, and escape, and more.
The Bomb Electronic Attack Range System here consists of several unmanned threat emitters that replicate surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites. Col. Kristopher Struve, commander of 35th Fighter Wing, said the wing’s primary mission is suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), so realistic training against SAMs is critical.
USAF C-130s, F-16s, MC-130s, CV-22s, and B-52s train here, as do Navy EA-18G Growlers, Marine Corps F-35s, and Japanese F-2s, CH-47s, and F-35s.
“The Korea mission is really why I think this base, with these capabilities, exists in this theater.”Lt. Col. Trevor Cichowski, commander of the 13th Fighter Squadron
“We’re here to deter aggression in the Pacific—really worldwide,” he said. “When you think about the four countries that are listed as threatening countries [to the United States], three of them are within an hour flight of us. … We’re prepared all the time, ready for any aggression from North Korea, Russia, China.”
Lt. Col. Trevor Cichowski, commander of the 13th Fighter Squadron, added: “The Korea mission is really why I think this base, with these capabilities, exists in this theater.”
Struve said Misawa F-16s have performed “every mission the F-16 does: close-air support, strike, all those things.”
“But what we’ve managed to do in recent months is add capacity to Draughon Range, such that we’ve created an electronic range, and we’re modernizing and advancing that electronic range,” he said.
Credit for the work goes to “a couple of young enterprising captains and majors who put this together and got [Pacific Air Forces’] support,” he said. “They sourced some local unmanned training emitters, SAM replicators, and they built that up into a fully operational combat range.”
Struve, an F-16 pilot, said a recent SEAD training flight with the SAM emitters was the best SEAD sortie he’s completed through nine years at Misawa.
“Yeah, I got killed twice. It was awesome,” he said. “But that’s how we learn. We train hard and fail forward. It’s a great opportunity to provide that for our young aviators, and it’s really increased the capability of what we’re able to train to, which gets right after force modernization as part of the National Defense Strategy. Not just modernization, but increasing our readiness.”
The emitters are movable and can be rearranged, enhancing realism so that, according to Cichowski, they present “a very similar picture [of] an integrated air defense that we might see from certain host nations.”
They can also be altered “to simulate different threats so we can simulate different threat countries.”
That’s quite a shift from just a year ago when pilots would have to fly out “to the West Coast of Japan, and we would fight a threat scenario that we had kind of made up ourselves,” Cichowski said. “So at least one person in every flight already knew the secret, what was going to happen. We were just like, ‘Here it comes.’”
Now pilots can “do more hacks” on each mission. “It allows me time and gas to execute more training.” And then with the emitters being controlled, “It’s, no kidding, an operator who’s actually using them as a SAM system is supposed to be used. So it produces honest threat reactions. It makes our training much better.”
Capt. Jared Morris, assistant operations director for the 14th Fighter Squadron, said the emitters also allow for “real feedback during the fight, versus coming back and seeing if your tactics work” after the fact.
All that realism is now “less than 10 minutes from my home station.”
That’s not possible anywhere else, Cichowski said. “I definitely can’t do that in Alaska, not during a Red Flag.” In the continental U.S., pilots travel hours to train on an electronic range and would have to plan the entire mission around the small window of time at that range. Here, he said, “basically they can take off and they’re in the airspace at the range if they want to be.”
The capability is “part and parcel to their SEAD mission,” Rutell said. “They’re the only SEAD wing in PACAF, so it builds the foundation of their training.”
The base is also home to a Japanese F-35 squadron. But the F-35s’ computer systems are so much smarter than the F-16s’ that it knows the emitter isn’t a real SAM, Rutell said. To train F-35s, the range is getting new, more advanced emitters, which should be fully operational soon. The range was also recently certified for the F-35 electro-optical targeting system, which will allow them to drop weapons on the range.
Struve said it’s all part of building a bilateral capacity for the U.S. and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF). “The current emitters don’t meet the snuff for what the F-35 is capable for, so we need to modernize it,” he said.
The most recent upgrade is the LVC capability, which went fully online in November 2019, Rutell said. The live piece is pretty self-explanatory: Aircraft can fly in the base’s airspace, drop inert weapons on the range, or fly against the SAM simulators. The virtual piece allows them to “connect with assets across the United States. So you could connect with, let’s just say, an E-3 out of Tinker Air Force Base [Okla.], or any other unit” via the simulator.
For the constructive component, additional aircraft and ground targets can be simulated to add depth and complexity to training scenarios.
The LVC capability, described in a 2017 Air Force press release as “a video gamer’s greatest dream come true,” is enabled by Northrop Grumman’s Distributed Mission Operations Network (DMON). Northrop called it “the most complex and integrative live simulator available that connects both people and resources, spaced out over a vast geographic area in near-real time.”
Rutell said the network enables training despite weather, maintenance, or other problems that may arise. Previously, Misawa pilots could only do the virtual part—joining Red Flag in Alaska via simulators twice in 2018, for example, because weather kept them from reaching Alaska.
“Now we can actually have live aircraft flying, we can have guys in the [simulator] that are flying with them, and then can have constructed aircraft, and they can all pass messages and communicate,” he said.
Others are taking note of the range’s capabilities. Misawa’s quarterly exercise, Pacific Weasel, is “starting to become more high profile,” as all the improvements are made to Draughon Range, Cichowski said. “As they improve on that range, it becomes more of a training asset to this entire Indo-PACOM region, and as a result, we have seen an increased interest in having outside units come and participate with us at our home station.”
Forces from Yokota Air Base, Japan; Andersen Air Force Base, Guam; and South Korea have used the range, Struve said. “It’s an opportunity for us to get training here in the western Pacific without having to make the hop to Alaska, which costs a little bit in tanker and cargo and time.”
Rutell said it’s also safer and better for the mission to be able to do training close to home, instead of sending assets back to the United States.
“We can do all of our training in-house … to aid in the protection and self defense of Japan and its people, and increase readiness and operational capability,” he said.
Another recent improvement to the range is the size and availability of the airspace, Rutell said, which will now allow integrated training with the JASDF.
At 1,900 square acres, the range is not as big as some others, Struve said, so planners have to be careful about how operations are managed. But the range can’t be beat for its flexibility.
“We can do everything from basic surface attack to more advanced attacks with some [joint direct attack munitions] and laser-guided weapons, and then of course we have the electronic capability on the range. But it’s more than just that,” he said. “It’s also our Ospreys who train for assault landings. It’s a location where they can shoot their 50-cals. We used it in our survival, evasion, resistance, and escape training. Guys crawling around in the muck there, and an Osprey picks them up out of the grass. So we actually get to train the way we would get picked up if we actually found ourselves in that situation.”
Between the SAM emitters, the LVC capabilities, and the upgrades to be compatible with the F-35, “we’ve become really the best thing outside of Nellis or [Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex], with the most capability,” Struve said. “And it’s building, and we’ve got some amazing things on the horizon that we’re working on.”
Keeping ‘the Knife Sharp,’ Major Boosts Realism at Japan Range
By Jennifer Hlad
Maj. Daniel House spent a decade hunting down surface-to-air missile threats as an electronic warfare officer on the RC-135 Rivet Joint. Now he’s using that knowledge to help train fighter pilots to survive those threats in the wild.
House controls the unmanned threat emitters on Draughon Range at Misawa Air Force Base, pretending to “be the bad guy” and using some of the tricks he’s learned from enemies over the years to help better prepare U.S. and allied pilots.
“I sometimes drive them crazy,” he said. “But the more realistic I am here in training, hopefully more of them come home alive if anything ever goes haywire.”
House draws from personal experience as well as from other real engagements over the past 30 years, applying tactics and procedures that challenge the pilots.
“They’ll fly and pretend to drop bombs on me, and I’ll pretend to shoot missiles at them,” he said. “I’ve been loving it.”
House, the 35th Operations Support Squadron assistant director of operations, helped get updated threat emitters for the range and proved so good at his job that he was named was the 35th Fighter Wing’s Field Grade Officer of the Year in 2019.
Soon, Draughon Range will have the only emitters in the region that work against the Japanese F-35s based at Misawa. The new emitters are more reliable than the ones they replaced and can also replicate more threats.
“To get good at something, you have to practice it on a day-to-day basis, and you can’t go back to Alaska every single day,” House said. Achieving this kind of training fidelity in Japan will help better prepare pilots here for the threats they could face if called into action. “Now, are we as big and robust … as Alaska? Absolutely not,” he added. “But for day-to-day training, we knock it out of the park.”
When the first piece of the new live, virtual, and constructive training system arrived, House could have waited six months to be trained to use it. Instead, he dove in, taught himself the system, and put it to work.
“I just logged on,” he said. Then he started writing up reports on what worked and what didn’t. “For a while, it was just me holding down the system.”
Now that all the hardware is in place, House is working through the final bugs. The new system is like leaping from 1980s video game consoles to today’s worldwide cloud-based systems, and it’s so realistic that recently, when House was asked to use the constructive technology to simulate a pair of F-15s to challenge live aircraft, he baffled the live pilots. Over the radio he heard one pilot say to his to his squadron commander, “Sir, sir, I see them on the [computer screen], I hear them—where are these guys?”
That kind of realism challenges all aspects of a pilot’s skills. “He was dead set certain there were real aircraft in the air, and he was trying to find them,” House said. Here in Misawa, within range of China, Russia, and North Korea, Draughon is more than just another training range. “We really have to keep the knife sharp, and keep our people trained up,” he said. “We call ourselves the premier training range in the western Pacific, and we really are.”
But House’s goal is to be that and more. Not just the premier range in this part of the world, but the No. 3 range in the Air Force after the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex and Nevada Test and Training Range. With capabilities like those House has helped add here, he has a strong case to back that claim.