ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam --
Somewhere above the vast Pacific Ocean, a fighter aircraft has flown for hours, and its fuel supply is running low. Unable to return to its home station for fuel, that's when Agile Combat Employment (ACE) comes into play. Down below on a small island, three Airmen are waiting to refuel the aircraft and rapidly launch it back into the fight.
“ACE is this warfighting concept that the Pacific Air Forces is trying to operationalize, and we’re doing a pretty good job of it,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Jared Hutchinson, Cope North 2021 exercise director and 35th Operations Group commander at Misawa Air Base, Japan. “The basic concept behind it is that we use our agility to disperse off our main operating bases, and then we execute in a decentralized or more autonomous manner, which allows us to be much more resilient in a contested environment.”
A focal training point for Cope North 21 was to test the ACE multi-capable Airmen concept with our partner nation, Japan.
This concept involves teaching personnel how to complete tasks outside of their assigned Air Force Specialty Code (AFSC). At Cope North, Airmen and members of the Koku-Jieitai were divided into three-person teams, acting as two crew chiefs and a fuels technician. U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Todd Johnson is a standards and evaluations assistant flight chief assigned to the 36th Contingency Response Squadron (CRS) at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. As a member of the CRS, Johnson could be out the door at a moment’s notice responding to a crisis anywhere in the region, making him a prime candidate for the multi-capable Airmen training.
“If an individual is responsible for completing a task and is unable to do so, it’s very important that the person to his left or right is trained and able to complete the task at hand,” he said. “When you’re on the road, it’s nice to be able to help your counterparts and can become necessary for you to fill their shoes if something unexpected were to happen.”
Unfamiliar at first with the capability, Johnson used a national pastime to explain ACE.
“Think of it like a pit stop in NASCAR. If you have a well-trained and organized team, then a jet will be able to land, get a safety check, get refueled and ready to get back in the sky in just minutes,” he said.
The ACE training consists of three phases: Phase one is classroom academics. Phase two is hands-on training and familiarization with the aircraft. Phase three is real-world execution.
“During academics we covered the requirements for hot-pit refuels including how each area should be set up, the personnel required, skill level and qualifications of each member,” Johnson said. “We also covered both the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-35A Lightning II hot-pit refuel procedures, danger areas, hand signals and safety measures required to perform the task safely and efficiently.”
Phase 3 took place on Feb. 15 and 16 with Johnson and his team heading out to Northwest Field to put their skills to the test. They hot-pit refueled an F-16 Fighting Falcon and an F-35A, completing all the phases of ACE.
According to U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Dustin Mustach, ACE operations have come a long way in such a short time.
“We are no longer taking baby steps with ACE, we are making leaps proving we can operate anywhere,” said Mustach, an F-16 Fighting Falcon crew chief assigned to the 13th Fighter Squadron at Misawa Air Base, Japan. “This ACE operation is going to be a massive reference point for multiple bases. Future ACE operations will be prepared faster, making goals more attainable, which will eventually lead to ACE having much larger goals.”
As the old saying goes 'with practice comes mastery,' and the exercises at Cope North 21 worked towards that goal.
“What we learned is only going to improve with repetition,” said Johnson. “As ACE and MCA continue to develop and find its place in the Air Force, what we've accomplished and learned this Cope North is going to help build and pave the road for future MCA.”