Florida Guard returns to expeditionary roots with exercise

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. William Buchanan
  • 125th Fighter Wing

Guardsmen from the 125th Fighter Wing have teamed up with service members from around the country for an expeditionary exercise at the Savannah Air Dominance Center, Georgia, Feb. 18-24, 2020.

Dubbed ThunderEx 2020, wing leadership developed the training exercise to test the 125 FW’s ability to rapidly deploy to a bare-bones base and then employ the wing’s Air and Space Superiority combat power.

“This is the full wing using its multi-domain capabilities to project combat power,” said Lt. Col. David Siemion, 125 FW chief of safety and White Cell Warlord for ThunderEx.

Siemion said the greatest game changer with this exercise, compared to similar exercises in the past, was actually picking up and physically moving the wing. 

“Instead of simulating that we are preparing going to war and then waving a wand and saying, ‘Okay, now Jacksonville as a guard base becomes based at a new location,’ we’re actually physically moving pieces, parts, aircraft, and people to a different location,” Siemion said. “The significance there is you take all the artificiality out.”

In order to truly test the 125 FW design operating capability, units were given just 72 hours from initial notification to pack up, deploy and settle into position in the forward location. In less than three days, 344 personnel, 12 F-15 Eagles and thousands of pounds of additional equipment arrived at “Base X” at Savannah ADC.

Preparing Airmen for wartime missions also included operating in contested and degraded conditions. Airmen had to overcome lack of planning, broken communications and simulated attacks while maintaining operations.

“The intent is to sweat in training to prevent bleeding in war––real war,” Siemion said.

Senior Airman Joshua Hancock, a crew chief with the 125th Maintenance Squadron, worked the night shift during the 24-hour operations. He described the strength of the wing and what it was like deploying with an entire wing in less than three days. 

“Being shipped off makes it more realistic; it shows us what to expect if we get tasked to deploy,” Hancock said. “It also shows our wing’s capabilities; we deployed our wing in less than 72-hours and continue working in an adaptive environment––with Airmen from across the country.”

Hancock said the main difference between this exercise and those that came in the past was the adaptability of Airmen at all levels.

“At home, you kind of have an idea of what's going to happen and what's going on. Here you really don't,” Hancock said. “That’s the biggest factor that prepares you better than training in a home environment.”

Participating units in this cross-functional exercise included the 159th Fighter Squadron, 125th Operations Support Squadron, 125th Maintenance Group, 125th Mission Support Group, 125th Logistics Readiness Squadron, 111th Space Control Support Squadron, 290th Joint Communications Support Squadron, 128th Air Refueling Wing and Savannah Air Dominance Center. 

Since 9/11, small groups or even individual Airmen deploy around the world to support ongoing missions with established infrastructure. ThunderEx marks a shift away from this piecemeal deployment strategy and returned toward the expeditionary roots of the Air Force.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said, in his 2018 keynote address to the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber conference, that defense against peer nations with well established, modern militaries such as Russia or China will require an Air Force that can deploy within days, establish and defend new bases, and fight from those new bases even while under attack. 

“The next fight, the one we must prepare for as laid out in the National Defense Strategy, may not have fixed bases, infrastructure and established command and control, with leaders already forward, ready to receive follow-on forces,” Goldfein said. “So it’s time to return to our expeditionary roots. The expeditionary Air Force framework that Secretary Peters and Gen. Ryan laid out remains valid today. But it must be adapted and updated to support multi-domain operations of the 21st century.”