KORAT ROYAL THAI AIR BASE, Thailand –
Airmen from the Washington Air National Guard’s 141st Air Refueling Wing and the Oregon Air National Guard’s 142nd Wing participated in the first ever Enduring Partners engagement with the Royal Thai Air Force Sept. 11-21 at Korat Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand.
Enduring Partners 2023 was a National Guard-sponsored State Partnership Program engagement aimed at improving combat readiness and combined and joint interoperability between participants while enhancing strong defense relations and the State Partnership Program between the Washington Air National Guard and Thailand.
This engagement included participation from approximately 230 U.S. Airmen, five F-15Cs from the ORANG’s 142nd Wing, two KC-135 Stratotankers from the WAANG’s 141st Air Refueling Wing, and 20 F-5, JAS-39, and F-16 fighters from the Royal Thai Air Force.
Brig. Gen. Gent Welsh, commander of the Washington Air National Guard and EP23 creator, oversaw the execution of the engagement and was impressed by the teamwork demonstrated by the American and Thai servicemembers.
“During the exercise, between U.S. and Thai airmen, there was a lot of learning and working through problems together,” Welsh said. “Strengthening that alliance and becoming better allies and partners… It was probably one of the best experiences in my career.”
142nd Wing Commander, Col. Todd Hofford, reflected on the value of partaking in an engagement of this caliber and what it meant for the airmen involved.
“The overall goal and objective of this was of course training, relationship building, but [also] experience,” said Hofford. “It was really important to get my Airmen there, primarily for the adventure, to get into the Southeast Asia Indo-PACOM theater, be able to operate and do their jobs in a foreign country, and then come back. Those experiences are valuable.”
Pilots gained critical training experience through combined Dissimilar Air Combat Training or DACT, air-to-air refueling, and ground-controlled interception.
Other Airmen worked in supporting roles on the ground, ensuring the ability to safely and efficiently execute the day-to-day mission.
Maj. Jon Taylor, the assistant director of operations for the 142nd Operations Group, was heavily involved in the planning of this engagement. Having recently transferred from active duty Air Force to the Air National Guard, he brought years of experience in planning and executing events like EP23 to this endeavor. Taylor spoke of the importance of these kinds of engagements and the benefits they hold for participants.
“[Training engagements] like this bring us and our foreign partners to a common level,” said Taylor. “There’s a language barrier to get through. There’s also a cultural barrier, so essentially, participating in exercises like this with them builds the relationship between the two countries.”
In addition to the daily flying operations, there were a number of events that took place throughout the engagement which were aimed at enhancing relationships between U.S. and Thai people.
The Washington and Oregon Air National Guard, along with the Royal Thai Air Force, visited Nong Phluang Yai primary school in Korat during the first week of the engagement.
The visit to the school gave military members the chance to engage with local community members in an effort to build positive relationships and trust.
Military personnel brought soccer balls, volleyballs, toys, and educational materials to distribute to the children at the school. A Royal Thai Air Force band played as some military members and children ran out to play soccer and volleyball.
Staff Sgt. Darius Carlton, a host aviation resource manager with the 141st Operations Group, reflected on the opportunity to interact and have fun with the kids during the visit.
“This is by far one of the coolest things I have been able to do in the military,” said Carlton. “Those kids really wore me down.”
The second week of EP 23 culminated with separate visits from Robert Godec, United States Ambassador to Thailand; Lt. Gen. Michael Loh, Director, Air National Guard; and Chief Master Sgt. Maurice Williams, Air National Guard Command Chief.
Welsh commented on what a rare honor it was to have Mr. Godec on a flight during this engagement.
“Having the ambassador on a flight, taking the time that he did out of his busy schedule and going up there with us was really cool,” Welsh said. “Very rarely – at least to my knowledge – do any events rise to the level of the ambassador attending.”
EP23 concluded with 123 total sorties flown across 11 missions and seven days of flying.
Overall, Welsh noted that EP23 was executed exactly as planners had hoped, and planning for future iterations is already in the works.
“We were able to exercise multi-state, multinational, much the same way that we’d planned,” Welsh said. “It was really cool, kind of a proud dad moment.”