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Kentucky Air Guard strengthens ties with NATO allies in Air Defender

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

WUNSTORF AIR BASE, Germany -- More than 130 Airmen from the Kentucky Air National Guard arrived here in early June to participate in NATO’s largest-ever multinational air force redeployment exercise, joining with more than 10,000 personnel and hundreds of aircraft from 25 partner countries.

Air Defender 23, which began June 12 and concluded June 23, was designed to integrate U.S. and allied air power to defend shared values while leveraging and strengthening vital partnerships to deter aggression around the world.

Throughout the event, Airmen from the Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Airlift Wing delivered air transportation and airdrop capabilities via C-130J Super Hercules aircraft while contingency response forces managed cargo, passenger and airfield operations. Other Kentucky Air Guardsmen provided essential aircraft maintenance, medical services and logistics support.

Enhanced interoperability with forces across NATO was a key goal of Air Defender, said U.S. Air Force Maj. Loren Miller, a pilot assigned to the Kentucky Air Guard’s 165th Airlift Squadron.

“Exercising with our allies builds strong bonds and deep trust,” Miller said. “Personal connections are established, not just when operating, but also during any down time. We find that we have more in common than we have differences, and one of the most important is the shared value of promoting peace through strength.”

According to the National Guard Bureau, approximately 2,600 U.S. Air Guardsmen and 100 Guard aircraft from 42 states rapidly descended on western Europe to train with 24 allied nations as part of Air Defender, enhancing joint capabilities across the globe.

Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, Texas and Wyoming all joined Kentucky in bringing C-130 aircraft to Wunstorf Air Base. Those aircraft joined German A400 and Romanian C27 transports to provide key airlift capability.

“The airlift and airdrop packages were vital to getting equipment and boots on the ground,” Miller noted.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. James Embry, officer-in-charge of C-130 maintenance, said the exercise helped prepare his maintainers for the future.

“This exercise undoubtedly strengthened our deployed maintenance force by increasing our interoperability with allied partners as we melded well with our German and Romanian counterparts,” Embry said. “AD23 also showcased the Multi-Capable Airman concept as our maintainers worked across their primary specialties to leverage maximum capability and increase functionality during a high operations tempo. The daily aircraft utilization rate was upwards of 90 percent overall.”

The Kentucky wing deployed 11 maintenance Airmen, bringing the total number of maintainers for the 10 C-130 units at Wunstorf to 95. Those forces facilitated 270 aircraft missions over 309 flight hours, delivering 863,580 pounds of cargo and 1,165 passengers.

“Our German hosts and the Romanians have been very accommodating,” Embry said, “and we reciprocated in kind. The willingness of everyone to work together with our NATO partners was evident in all our interactions.”

Miller noted that training conducted in the European Theater translates globally, and that working with NATO forces provides vital integration experience.

“We are truly stronger together,” he said. “This integration between partner nations — not just fighter and transport integration — was proof that each package has value in the larger picture. Each has a role, like a football team, and you are only stronger working as a team. Each aircraft performs its role within a package, and objectives are met along with commanders’ intent. Performing your role builds trust and bonds, not just between platforms, but between partner nations.”

The 165th Airlift Squadron performed tactical airlift and airdrop in the South and East Composite Air Operation Region with mixed aircraft formations including German A400M, Romanian C27 and U.S. Air National Guard C-130H and C-130J aircraft. They also airdropped German paratroopers.

Kentucky Air Guardsmen also played an essential role supporting cargo and troop movements.

According to U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ryan McNary, a logistics planner assigned to the 123rd Contingency Response Group, the unit supported 139 missions that airlifted 1,578 passengers and 885 short tons of cargo as of June 20. After redeploying back home to the states, those numbers will nearly double.

“The CRG acted as a hub that received all C-17 traffic and transloaded personnel and cargo onto C-130s,” McNary said. “This enabled the entire exercise, since many of the spoke airfields were not C-17 capable.”

Troops from the Kentucky Air Guard’s 123rd Medical Group participated in the exercise as well, providing over-the-counter medications, wound-care applications and patient-care equipment.

“Being able to take our skills from our home base and implement them into an exercise like this is exactly what we train for,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Cristen Sanders, a medical technician with the unit. “It’s imperative our unit knows how to integrate seamlessly into any operational environment.”

Embry agreed.

“This exercise showcased our ability to deploy and adapt to unfamiliar locations while still accomplishing our mission,” he said. “We learned to be flexible and overcome consistent challenges, which ultimately made our Airmen better prepared for future conflicts.”