Dynamic Training In Alaska

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt Jeremy Brownfield
  • 125th Fighter Wing
RF-A is a field training exercise for U.S. and international forces flown under simulated air combat conditions. Pilots conduct training missions on the expansive 67,000 square-mile Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC). Air operations are flown primarily out of Eielson Air Force Base and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.

"Air Superiority is what we bring to the fight at Eielson," said 159th Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. Brian Bell, referring to the F-15 Eagle's air-to-air combat capabilities.

Jacksonville brought twelve F-15s and nearly twice that number of pilots as the only airframe playing the role of dedicated escort during the exercise. Escorts are responsible for seeing strike aircraft safely through their objective.

"Not only do you have an air-to-air threat, but also a surface-to-air threat," Bell said.

Strategically placed ground threat emitters within the JPARC simulate Surface-to-Air Missile and other surface threats, which increases the realism and difficulty of the training complex.

Pilots of the 125FW flew primarily as "blue" forces, an organization made up of all the aircraft deployed to Eielson for training. The Florida F-15s were joined by eight Japanese F-15 J-Models in missions with the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F-22 Raptor to increasing the number of combatants.

Pilots from Eielson's 18th Aggressor Squadron play a static role of "red" forces, flying F-16s painted in one of three stripe pattern configurations to simulate hostile targets. They are experts specifically trained to replicate adversary countries' capabilities, weapons and tactics. 

Jacksonville's F-15s augmented red combatants during two of the combat training missions. All units were required to augment the red force at least once during RF-A.

"The F-15 handles higher altitudes, has a better radar and more weapons while the F-16 is more of a jack-of-all-trades," said Lt. Col. Mark Sandor, Director of Operations for the 354th Operations Support Squadron and 18th Aggressor Squadron pilot.

Lt. Col. Matthew Van Wieren was one of several 125FW pilots to have the opportunity to fly as an adversary during the exercise. Van Wieren gave accolades to the 18th Aggressor Squadron for their knowledge of enemy maneuvers. He went on to explain that they have quite a bit more radar jamming training, which is a lesson the pilots took home to Florida.

"A better understanding of our enemy makes us better warriors." Van Wieren said about his experience.

Augmenters to the "red" forces from outside Eielson are generally chosen from a pool of the most experienced pilots, paving the way for less experienced pilots to receive the much sought after "blue" force experience. This process also allows mission planners the option to dial back their ability as necessary to coax newer pilots into a formidable fighting force.

The planning phase for mobilizing the 125FW to RED FLAG-Alaska started January 2014.

"I arrived in January for the Initial Planning Conference (IPC) to decide on missions, jets and pilots. IPC lasts about a week, then there's five months of preparing the units, such as the Logistics Readiness Squadron and Maintenance." said Maj. Mansour Elhihi, the project manager for the 125th Fighter Wing.  Elhihi was in charge of funding, personnel and manning for the mobilization. "My job is basically to bring everybody up here."

Lt. Col. Robert Botkin also played a role in preparation and planning as Deployed Maintenance Commander. He attended the IPC to determine the need for sorties, airplanes, equipment and personnel of a given Air Force Specialty Code. The total package included 165 personnel, 126 of which were LRS and maintenance.

Botkin spoke to several challenges of RF-A, which included the weather, language and terminology barriers and even the exercise's remote location. He said there was much to gain in the way of experience. 30% of the Airmen on the trip are Airmen with little experience, this being their first deployment.

"There's a lot of new blood and it is a good opportunity for the unexperienced...for our young Airmen to get a first taste of an operational exercise," Botkin said. "It puts a good stress on the maintenance and supply system." Continuing to add that mid-grade NCOs had an opportunity to take roles as trainers.

Airman 1st Class Wendell Upp, a crew chief under Botkin's command, was one of the younger Airman given the opportunity to take home this valuable experience and hands-on training. Upp finished his technical training in September and RF-A was his first deployment.

"It's a lot different here at RED FLAG," Upp said. "It's me and another guy on the jet as opposed to like ten guys. I've been told it was going to be fast-paced, but I've been keeping up pretty well."

Bell said this was not the last RF-A the 125th Fighter Wing would participate in. He said the training and experience the young Airmen received during an exercise of this magnitude was a huge benefit to both themselves and the unit as a whole. Planning has already begun for further training opportunities.