Firebirds training in southwestern US highlights C-17 capabilities

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Samuel Colvin
  • JBER Public Affairs

On the morning of Jan. 8, 2021, 13 U.S. Airmen, all assigned to the 517th Airlift Squadron, boarded a C-17A Globemaster III aircraft and flew from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to March Air Reserve Base, California. Their mission: to train and prepare for global operations in a deployed environment.

The crew brought computers, printers, projectors and other supplies with them to set up a mobile mission-planning cell (MMPC) to plan airlift operations in a simulated austere environment. An MMPC kit can be set up anywhere in the world to plan airlift operations in locations where a well-established network may not be available.

The week of training focused on Agile Combat Employment (ACE), an operational concept designed to develop Airmen to become multi-functional and operate from smaller, tactical-level forces to increase combat capability.

“Our hosts at March Air Reserve Base afforded the crew a small room where they were able to set up their planning cell and begin preparations for the first mission of the [exercise]” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Ben Aiken, the 517th AS Weapons and Tactics Flight commander and weapons officer.

“This first mission was a training sortie to enhance the aircrew’s effectiveness when operating in a low-altitude environment against advanced adversary threat systems and capabilities including radar-guided missile systems, infrared-guided missile systems, air-defense artillery systems, and non-kinetic threats such as GPS jamming,” Aiken continued. “This mission then culminated back at March Air Reserve Base for tactical-arrival training to simulate arrivals into an airfield within a threat environment.”

The aircrew operated between hub-and-spoke locations with minimal real-time mission planning. They rapidly transported cargo and personnel from one unfamiliar airfield to another.

“One of the largest challenges to operationalizing ACE at the tactical level is operating in and through domains with degraded or non-existent command and control, called C2, abilities,” Aiken said. “We relied heavily on our training and experience to execute mission-type orders without extreme direction or redirects from our C2 function – our simulated Joint Forces Air Component Commander who was sitting here at JBER.”

While in the MMPC at March ARB, Aiken said he provided additional training for U.S. Air Force Maj. Joe Aubert, a C-17 pilot with the 729th AS, and U.S. Air Force Capt. Joel Cortright, a C-17 pilot with the 517th AS, to better prepare them for their applications to the U.S. Air Force Weapons School. Aubert and Cortright had opportunities to lead the mission-planning cell, fly the missions during the OST, and receive several academic lessons on both planning and operating the C-17. Aubert and Cortright then gave instruction briefings to the other aircrew members involved in the training.

Conducting additional training during a training exercise focused on ACE operations further demonstrates the efficiency and flexibility of U.S Airmen.

Another highlight from the week was semi-prepared runway operations (SPRO) at Bicycle Lake Army Airfield, California. This exercised one of the primary design elements of the C-17 – its ability to deliver cargo worldwide, even on unpaved runways.

“Airfields like Bicycle Lake afford us training for this mission set, as it is located on a dry lake bed,” Aiken said. “We were able to perform multiple landings and takeoffs on this semi-prepared, or dirt, runway for training for our crew members. This training is vital in building their experience and confidence for when they operate in similar environments while deployed.”

U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Ryckoff, the 821st Contingency Response Squadron airfield manager, was instrumental in making the training possible at the airfield.

“He traveled to Bicycle Lake on short notice to perform landing zone safety officer duties for us,” Aiken said. “This position is required for us to perform this training, and it would not have been possible had he not been willing to travel to help us out.”

Another capability of the C-17 is using an aerial bulk fuel delivery system to refuel F-22 Raptors – one of the U.S. Air Force’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft – in unfamiliar, austere environments.

“Although we were unable to complete one of our desired ACE objectives – aircraft-to-aircraft refueling operations from a C-17 directly to an F-22 – we were successful in exercising our willingness to utilize JBER assets to demonstrate the asymmetric advantage the C-17 brings to ACE – capability and capacity to move, operate and maneuver,” Aiken said.

Even though the refueling didn’t happen, the week of training was already a major success.

“It included coordination with combat controllers in Fort Irwin, [California], SPRO landings, cargo movements in support of F-22 operations, along with a whole host of C-17 operations and capabilities,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Christopher Prentiss, the 517th AS commander. “The training tells some of the great stories of how the 3rd Wing is preparing for ACE operations, and is a great display of how the 517th is preparing to support global ACE operations."

The Pacific Air Forces first implemented ACE in 2017, focusing on training to deploy smaller, agile units with mobile secure communications to austere or contested environments where there may not be established infrastructure.

“The ACE construct and enduring efforts afford U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the U.S. Air Force, and our joint and coalition partners greater flexibility when it comes to fighting tomorrow’s battles,” Aiken said. “What we’re doing hasn’t changed – how we’re doing it has.”