MARINE CORPS BASE, Hawaii–Airmen from the 161st Air Refueling Wing conducted the Air National Guard’s first multiday flyaway readiness exercise by an air refueling wing Oct. 12-17, 2022, to demonstrate the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment priority.
The ACE concept uses multi-capable Airmen to maintain, refuel and recover aircraft and ensure they are ready to deploy rapidly.
“This is a demonstration of leadership at every level,” said Col. Jessica Hastings, commander of the 161st Air Refueling Wing. “The success in future combat scenarios is the multi-capable Airmen who understand commander intent and think outside the box to overcome unconventional challenges.”
Four KC-135 Stratotankers from the 161st Air Refueling Wing and two C-17 Globemaster IIIs from Alaska’s 176th Airlift Wing and New York’s 105th Airlift Wing departed from Goldwater Air National Guard Base in Phoenix with just over 100 Airmen and minimal equipment needed to conduct air refueling in an austere environment.
To simulate the challenges of an austere environment, the 161st Inspector General Office contacted Marine Corps Base Hawaii’s Marine Aircraft Group 24 to coordinate the use of a hangar and ramp space. This added complexity to the exercise by taking the team to an unfamiliar non-Air Force base.
“We needed to replicate and inject challenges that may be faced in a real-world event,” said Senior Master Sgt. Ben Northcutt, 161st Inspector General Office. “Having communication and equipment challenges and working in an unfamiliar environment is more in line with what units will likely face in future conflicts.”
The exercise began with an idea from members of the Arizona Air National Guard to push boundaries while training for a future conflict with a readiness exercise.
Once the airfield was secured, coordination began with the Pacific Air Defense Sector, 298th Air Defense Group, to provide ground control intercept and air space control to facilitate the 161st ARW’s ability to conduct refueling missions with F-22 Raptors from the 19th Fighter Squadron.
“We do not go to war alone,” said Maj. David Fitzmaurice, inspector general, 161st Air Refueling Wing. “Real-world conflicts require total force coordination between the Active, Guard and Reserve and all branches of service in the area of operations.”
The Airmen of the 161st understood the complexities of the exercise as soon as they arrived at Kaneohe Bay.
“Operating with a smaller team, in an unfamiliar location, and without the typical equipment we use at our home station was a challenge,” said Staff Sgt. Erik Swanberg, an air cargo specialist with the 161st Logistics Readiness Squadron. “Offloading C-17s and KC-135s and getting cargo to the exercise area across the flight line set the tone, but once we started working through the problem, things fell into place.”
Exercise injects created further challenges for the Airmen. Communication outages, airfield security threats and simulated chemical attacks added to the stress of the situation.
“Training in a deployment-type environment gave senior unit members a chance to provide hands-on training to our junior Airmen,” said Tech Sgt. Michael Hayes, 161st Force Support Squadron food service specialist. “Set up and use of the critical components of our field kitchen and overcoming environmental conditions such as rain and wind to conduct food services was something we don’t get to do on a day-to-day basis back at the wing.”
Another exercise objective involved aircrew working with maintenance and fuel teams to conduct hot pit refueling. This occurs immediately after landing, while an engine is still running, to reduce response times for the redeployment of the aircraft.
“In today’s geopolitical climate, the KC-135 mission may have to operate out of airfields with limited or no ground support,” said Tech Sgt. Trent Stokes, an inflight refueling specialist with the 161st Air Refueling Wing. “That is why aircrews must become proficient in tasks such as rapid refueling to sustain the mission.”
Lessons learned during this exercise are just the beginning of creating a more agile combat force.
“There are always crawl, walk and run phases to training,” said Col. Dean Owen, vice commander of the 161st Air Refueling Wing. “We have trained for this at our home station and within our immediate area in preparation for hitting the ground running during an exercise like this.”
The 161st Air Refueling Wing operates out of Goldwater Air National Guard Base in Phoenix and is one of the busiest air refueling wings in the nation, supporting Air Education and Training Command, Air Mobility Command, U.S. Strategic Command, and overseas deployments.