JACKSONVILLE AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Fla. – Florida National Guard members from the 125th Fighter Wing teamed up with service members from around the country for a weeklong expeditionary exercise ending Feb. 24 at the Savannah Air Dominance Center in Georgia.
Dubbed ThunderEx 2020, wing leadership developed the training exercise to test the 125 FW's ability to deploy to a bare-bones base rapidly and then employ the wing's air and space superiority combat power.
"This is the full wing using its multidomain capabilities to project combat power," said Lt. Col. David Siemion, 125 FW chief of safety and white cell warlord for ThunderEx.
Siemion said the most significant game-changer with this exercise, compared to similar exercises, 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, 'OK, 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."
Units were given just 72 hours to pack, 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 equipment arrived at "Base X" at Savannah ADC for the exercise Feb. 18-24.
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, crew chief with the 125th Maintenance Squadron, described the cold weather more than the sweat in training. Hancock worked the night shift during the 24-hour operations. He also described the chaos that comes with deploying an entire wing in less than three days.
"Being shipped off makes it a lot more hectic, disorganized, confusing," Hancock said. "People don't know where anything is or what's going on."
Hancock said the main difference between this exercise and previous ones was unpredictability. The Airmen maintaining the jets, guarding the base and cooking meals had little-to-no warning of changing mission priorities or degraded conditions, and they had to adapt on the fly.
"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.
Units participating in the 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 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 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. ... But it must be adapted and updated to support multidomain operations of the 21st century."