OSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea -- Nov. 1 through 7 marked the planning and participation of a first of its kind exercise for 7th Air Force, Vigilant Ace 16. For a unit that already plans and/or participates in over 30 unique training events on average yearly, this was no easy task. So with that many training events already on the roster, why another exercise; how would this be different?
"[Exercises like] Key Resolve and Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise the strategic level, whereas the tactical level is all simulated," said Lt. Col. David Villa, 7th AF Inspector General, and exercise planner. "The other types of exercises we typically do are tactical level exercises where the wing executes the flying but there's no higher level command and control or strategic level involvement above the wing. So this exercise is unique in that it bridges the gap and is specifically focused on exercising the strategic to operational to tactical level linkages."
In meeting this larger-scale objective, the exercise spanned eight bases in Korea, and involved units from Japan, Guam and the United States. It encompassed the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air National Guard and required the movement of more than 1,000 personnel and more than 50 aircraft into the ROK, adding to the over 20,000 U.S. and ROK participants and more than 200 on-peninsula participating aircraft.
"It's really an impressive feat," said Lt. Col. Erik Axt, 7th Air Force chief of training and VA16 exercise planner. And as one can expect, getting everyone and everything in the right place at the right time was critical.
"The 374th Airlift Wing and Operations Group [Yokota, Air Base, Japan] spearheaded the airlift planning for this exercise and partnered with the Alaskan and California Air National Guard to obtain the proper amount of aircraft, air crews, and maintenance support necessary to create a 'Western Pacific air bridge' for our fighter units to deploy efficiently and effectively," said Maj. Mark Nexon, 374th Operations Group mission commander and lead planner for the airlift portion of the VA16.
He went on to explain the benefits of creating an air bridge.
"Airlift, in this case an air bridge, can quickly deploy forces for combat or humanitarian reasons," he said. "More importantly, it can sustain Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in a variety of scenarios -- many of which don't allow for overland or oversea delivery due to any numbers of barriers. From my perspective, airlift is the most responsive and flexible link between our logistics enterprise and those in the fight."
One of those units "in the fight," was the 18th Fighter Wing deployed from Kadena Air Base, Japan.
"For the folks from across the entire [18th Fighter] wing to be able to come, plug in to a Korean Air Force Base, bed down and learn how to operate out of this base in the local air space and environment makes us more ready to provide assistance to Seventh Air Force and to the Republic of Korea air force if contingencies require us to come and support defensive operations on the Korean peninsula," said Col. David Mineau, 18th Operations Group commander. But a seamless transition required months of planning and coordination across the Pacific Command area of responsibility.
According to Mr. Donald Hoobler, 374th AW, who assisted Nexon on the planning of the airlift piece, that coordination spanned the 374th AW to the 18th FW. The success of this coordination was seen as early as halfway through the exercise when the 374th AW had moved more than 400 thousand pounds of cargo and over 650 passengers during approximately 87 sorties. Nexon added that by the end of the exercise the 374th AW would have flown more missions and hours than it flies during a normal month.
This being a new exercise, Villa and Axt were unsure of the response and support it would receive.
"We're getting at different objectives than we normally do, [we wondered] how to explain this new exercise to all of the participating units, get buy in," Axt said.
A valid concern with an exercise of this scale, however, response from participants has been overwhelmingly positive.
"I saw this exercise as a great validator of our capability to meet our wartime mission," Hoobler said. "While most units exercise on the tactical level by conducting wing level exercises, this exercise allows both the Seventh and Fifth Air Forces' commanders and all their wings to work together."
Mineau added, "It makes us combat ready, interoperable and gives us confidence that we can do this contingency mission on a very short notice if we are asked to do so."
However, the U.S. units weren't alone in reaping the benefits from this new training.
"The Republic of Korea air force is doing something they've never done before as well," Villa said. "So, it reflects very credibly on them and the coalition that they took this step forward to undertake an exercise like this that's unlike anything they've ever done before. The lessons they're going to learn will be significant and we'll be able as a coalition to take that further and plan more successful exercises together which ultimately increases the combat capability of the entire coalition."
Seventh Air Force Commander Lt. Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy went on to say, "Vigilant Ace 16 was a massive undertaking that really showed what air power in the Pacific is capable of. The coordination required for multiple wings, two numbered air forces and the Republic of Korea Air Force Operations Command to provide heavy airlift support and a comprehensive air combat campaign was really incredible. Every Airman, Sailor, Soldier and Marine should be very proud of all we accomplished."