More than 40 aircraft from three bases, including F-35s and F-16s, recently completed a major joint exercise to train how they would defend an airfield during a grueling, lengthy battle.
F-35s from Hill Air Force Base in Utah, F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 311th Fighter Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, and the 80th Fighter Squadron at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, as well as a team of contracted aggressor pilots, gathered at Hill’s Utah Test and Training Range from April 30 to May 2. Hill’s F-35s came from the active-duty 388th Fighter Wing and the Reserve’s 419th Fighter Wing.
The 388th Fighter Wing at Hill said in a Tuesday release that the defensive counter-air exercise was intended to simulate a combat operations tempo and test maintainers’ and pilots’ ability to generate sortie after sortie to defend their airfield against a large enemy force. Such joint training is typically only done during large exercises such as Red Flag, the release said.
“We were severely outnumbered,” Maj. Thomas Meyer, a weapons officer for the 34th Fighter Squadron, which is part of the 388th. “We had a five-to-one aggressor ratio and we were tasked with defending a list of assets over an 8-hour tour time block. We had aircraft sitting in alert status to respond to whatever enemy threats were presented.”
During those 8-hour blocks, aircraft had to be continually rotated into the fight. If the “enemy” broke through their defenses and hit a target, the release said, the friendly forces suffered a penalty of lost time to generate aircraft as maintainers “took cover.”
Hill typically sees eight to 10 aircraft take off at once, and then another group of eight to 10 take off several hours later. But during last week’s exercise, the release said, four fighters took off every 30 to 45 minutes, throughout the day.
Maintainers worked in “cells” of crew chiefs, weapons technicians and avionics technicians, overseen by a senior non-commissioned officer, that kept up to four aircraft ready for flight at all times. The maintainers generated 44 sorties each day.
“Normally our maintainers have two to three hours to turn an aircraft, so having to do so every 30 minutes really tests their skill,” Capt. John Goodwin, a maintenance operations officer for the 419th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, said in the release. “These exercises are an extremely effective and essential way to ensure our overall readiness.”
“We’re testing everything associated with generating a combat sortie from our weapons loading to aircraft production,” Chief Master Sgt. Scott Spraberry, superintendent for the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, said in the release.
The follow-up exercise for the 388th and 419th, Combat Hammer, began on Monday and will conclude May 17th. The evaluation of the effectiveness, maintainability, suitability and accuracy of munitions will include F-16s from Kunsan and Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina; and A-10s from Moody AFB, Georgia.
The aggressor pilots for last week’s exercise came from Draken International at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.