A force of 24 F-16s and more than 500 airmen from the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano AB, Italy, deployed to Graf Ignatievo AFB, Bulgaria, for Thracian Star 2012—a month-long partnership-building exercise with the Bulgarian air force. “We very rarely send two of our fighter squadrons to the same location, so in both scope of training and size, this is historic for us,” said Col. David Walker, 31st Operations Group commander and leader of the US exercise detachment. “Your airfield, your facilities, and your airspace are fantastic . . . and I know it will make us both stronger air forces,” he told his Bulgarian hosts. The exercise began on April 18. The Aviano F-16s will fly with Bulgarian MiG-29s, giving the NATO partners a chance “to improve our interoperability,” highlighted Walker. In addition to pilots and maintainers, the 31st FW dispatched terminal attack controllers, security forces, and firefighters for the exercise. (Graf Ignatievo report by SrA. Katherine Windish)
The U.S. supports “a stronger and more capable” European defense, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said during an Oct. 22 press conference in Brussels—but that defense should not duplicate the functions and capabilities of the NATO alliance.