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123rd Special Tactics facilitates aircraft operations on Wyoming highways

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Phil Speck
  • 123rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

RIVERTON, WY. -- Nineteen Airmen from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron made history near here April 30 and May 2 when they facilitated the landing of aircraft on two Wyoming highways for the first time as part of Exercise Agile Chariot.

The exercise featured MC-130J Commando IIs from the U.S. Air Force’s 1st Special Operations Wing, which led Agile Chariot; A-10 Thunderbolt IIs from the Michigan Air National Guard’s 127th Wing; MH-6M Little Birds from the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment; and MQ-9 Reapers from the U.S. Air Force’s 27th Special Operations Wing.

The Kentucky Air Guardsmen established and controlled both landing zones for the exercise, which tested the concept of Agile Combat Employment — an operational scheme of maneuver designed to enhance survivability while rapidly generating combat power. The exercise also employed a Forward Arming and Refueling Point, Integrated Combat Turnarounds and the infiltration and exfiltration of Air Force Special Operations personnel with U.S. Army Special Ops Aviation Command troops.

It provided an excellent opportunity to test ACE concepts in the field, according to Master Sgt. Devin Butcher, lead planner and coordinator for Agile Chariot’s ground force.

“We accomplished a lot of good learning objectives, but we also expanded on some of the tactics, techniques and procedures that ultimately define ACE,” he said. “How can we get from one location to the next with a minimal amount of aircraft and a minimal amount of gear that’s organic to our units and then be able to ultimately provide options for leadership to be able to make decisions on the best way to employ whatever it is that we’re delivering to these locations?

“Part of our mission set at the 123rd is really focused around domestic operations,” added Butcher, who served as the unit’s non-commissioned officer-in-charge of combat control. “For instance, when tornadoes, earthquakes or hurricanes strike, and an entire airport is completely demolished, my team can go out and find roadways that are suitable on which to land aircraft, so we can provide humanitarian aid quickly. We don't have to rely on those airports. We can survey, assess and then be able to provide access to critical health care and supplies via airlift.”

On April 30, the Kentucky Airmen cleared Highway 287 of debris, established a landing zone, and conducted air traffic control for inbound aircraft. The team also performed a seven-man parachute insertion from a MC-130 Commando II into a drop zone adjacent to the highway.

On the second day of operations, they repeated the procedure of preparing a landing zone for an MC-130. Once the aircraft landed, the team boarded MH-6 Little Birds that had been offloaded from the cargo plane by Soldiers from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The special tactics troops then performed combat search-and-rescue missions to find simulated injured pilots and extract them from the landing zone on Highway 789.

The STS team was built to deliver a broad range of the unit’s capabilities, including a special tactics officer, combat controllers, pararescuemen, medical personnel to help with combat search-and-rescue, and a radio maintainer.

All of these Airmen worked together to secure and control a forward arming and refueling point landing zone in an austere, contested, degraded, and operationally limited environment while operating independently without reach-back to higher headquarters.

“From the pararescue perspective, this really showcased our capabilities as operators to integrate with combat controllers and the air players to achieve a common goal,” said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Verdi, a pararescueman from the 123rd. “The more we continue to train to a high level as operators, the more we increase the Air Force’s ability to achieve success in the future battle space.”

“The 123rd has a plethora of knowledge and experience,” Butcher added. “The average individual on our team has anywhere from 10 to 13 years of experience as Air Force Special Warfare Airman. That's critical in these no-fail types of environments because we're landing aircraft on roadways that are meant to carry cars and trucks, not planes. We surveyed the highways to test suitability, and then we landed aircraft on a couple of roads over a couple of days. A mere 30 minutes later, we reopened the roadways, and there were vehicles back on them as if nothing had ever happened.”

In recent years, AFSOC and Total Force organizations have diligently trained on ACE concepts. Examples include A-10s and C-146As landing on a Michigan highway, and M-28 and C-146As taking off and landing from Latvian roads. Agile Chariot, however, was unprecedented in terms of scope, as more aircraft participated in highway landings than ever before — including the first-ever MQ-9 Reaper landing on a U.S. road.

The exercise sought to operationalize ACE across four key areas: codifying repeatable and understandable processes; organizing, training and equipping forces appropriately; posturing theaters with the necessary equipment, assets and host nation agreements; and facilitating joint service and partner nation integration/interoperability.

According to Butcher, the exercise presented a lot of challenges, involving multiple state and federal organizations.

“There were a lot of moving parts — organizations like the Wyoming Department of Transportation, Homeland Security, the FBI and the FAA,” he said. ““It's not just going in and landing at an airfield. We had to get permission to be able to shut down the highway. And air traffic control had never had an MQ-9 descend from class-A airspace and land on a highway. We essentially paved the way of how that should look so that we can continue to build on these lessons learned.”

Staff Sgt. Philip Trojanowski, a combat controller with the 123rd, described the exercise as “an eye-opening experience.”

“To be a part of the planning process for such a large-scale exercise like this, from the beginning all the way through execution, really broadens your perspective on what’s possible for future operations. What we can do as a Total Force is pretty much limitless.”

“We have a responsibility to provide options to the leadership of the Air Force,” Butcher added. “This is one of many ways that my team and the 123rd STS can provide options. We're going to continue to expand and build out our tactics, techniques and procedures, and continue to develop these means of providing access and placement.

“We're paving the way for what we think ‘forward’ is going to look like. It’s our responsibility to provide options for the access and placement of all our assets — not just Air Force, but Army, Navy, Marines, everybody.”