NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, NV -- An Army convoy is driving though the desert when they run into an ambush. Enemy vehicles and tanks threaten the lives of soldiers on the ground. While taking cover, a Joint Terminal Attack Coordinator grabs his radio and calls for air support. Moments later, the roar of an F-16 fighter jet engine can be heard overhead. U.S. Air Force pilots arrive, dropping bombs and taking out their targets.
The smoke clears. The shooting stops. The attack is over. As the F-16s fly away, the soldiers are safe and can continue their mission.
This kind of coordination is no easy feat. Pilots in the air and soldiers on the ground, trying to pinpoint the location of the aggressors and dropping munitions, all while in close range friendly soldiers. That’s where exercises like Green Flag-West come in.
“Green Flag is a joint exercise where the Air Force, Air National Guard and Air Reserves can come and participate with the Army and practice live fires as well as dry attacks, to see how we can coordinate and function cohesively in combat,” said Lt. Col. Brian Moran, 112th Fighter Squadron Commander assigned to the 180th Fighter Wing.
190 Airmen from the 180FW deployed to Nellis Air Force Base, in February, to take part in the exercise.
Conducted by the 549th Training Squadron, Green Flag exercises have been going on for more than 35 years.
The focus of the exercise is to improve interoperability between the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force by coordinating close air support efforts.
“We fly from Nellis Air Force Base across Mount Charleston, over into a restricted area in California, right over Death Valley,” Moran said. “We immediately start working with different agencies on the radio, coordinating where we’re going, what we’re doing, similar to how we would overseas, so we get to practice those skills. Then we show up in our airspace and immediately start talking to the guys on the ground and working with them.”
Working with the JTACS on the ground, the pilots can pinpoint their targets and take them out from the skies at altitudes as high as 20,000 feet.
“The training we’ve been exposed to on the ranges here is just amazing,” said Maj. Roy Poor, 180FW F-16 pilot and project officer for Green Flag-West, “with several thousand actual Army people down south in the National Training Center “fight” and hundreds of pieces of real armor. They actually have real threat replications for surface-to-air missile systems that are attempting to target us, and that gives us a chance to also target them. It’s great training for visual recognition in a congested airspace environment that we would expect to see overseas.”
“The main focus of our close-air-support has always been a small-scale, small-team, small-kind of fight, very centralized and localized, where this is exposure to something we’re not used to,” Poor continued. “But, it’s a very important skill for us to have for future taskings.”
Before the pilots can step to their planes, the planes need to be prepped and ready to go. That’s where the 180FW maintenance teams come in.
“Maintenance plays a pretty heavy role,” said 2nd Lt. Brandon Cole, a maintenance officer assigned to the 180FW. “Our job is to make sure the aircraft are mission capable for the entire exercise. So, we look at what inspections need to be accomplished and what heavy maintenance needs to be done, anything that gives those JTACs the ability to call in close air support. Without maintenance on the ground doing that, they wouldn’t have the ability to call in that support.”
Maintenance did just that. They were able to execute 220 sorties, while maintaining a 90% mission capable rating throughout the exercise, compared to the National Guard standard of 70%.
Being able to produce mission capable rates like this doesn’t come without challenges. With large-scale operations utilizing assets from multiple organizations, communication can become a large hurdle to overcome.
“It’s vitally important that each of the units are talking to each other, between maintenance and Logistics Readiness Squadron and making sure the fuel trucks know when to be out here to fuel the jets, making sure weapons and munitions know when to load the bombs and get them loaded to the aircraft,” Cole said. “It’s a pretty big challenge continually integrating within an active duty setting, as well.”
Nellis AFB has one of the busiest runways in the Air Force. With several different organizations and multiple trainings and missions going on simultaneously, it can be difficult to coordinate resources through multiple sections.
“Running into issues here, and being able to troubleshoot them and figure out better ways to improve on it will help us be prepared for whatever comes in the future,” said Airman First Class Brandon Moore, a crew chief assigned to the 180FW.
By the end of the training, pilots logged more than 400 mission hours, shooting 22,000 20mm rounds and dropping 70 bombs, including the Guided Bomb Unit 38 and 31 V1, Dummy Bomb Unit 56 and four Mark 82 Live bombs.
“Overall, it’s been really good training, and I’ve been very proud of the way everyone showed up and stepped up to the plate to make it happen once we were here,” Poor said.
“The pilots of the 112th Fighter Squadron were very willing to learn, and that did surprise me a little,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Piepkorn, the team chief and operations supervisor for Green Flag-West. “Many times, when we have such an experienced squadron come to Green Flag, there is an attitude of ‘we know it all,’ but that was not true of the 112th. The willingness-to-learn attitude was great and I think it made a significant difference in their ability to get better as a squadron.”
Realistic trainings like Green Flag-West ensure the 180FW maintains the highest levels of proficiency and readiness for worldwide deployment.
“Training is really the only way to get better,” Moran said. “So, if we just show up and think that we can figure something out by brute force, it doesn’t work that way. We have to be willing to open up our books and set ourselves up to be critiqued.”