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Contingency response dominates ACE exercise during Southern Strike

  • Published
  • By 1st LT. Kiara Spann
  • 102nd Public Affairs Detachment

An F-16 Fighting Falcon escorts a C-17 Globemaster III into a simulated austere environment. The engines are running, the personnel deplane the C-17, cargo is downloaded, the airfield is prepped for more aircraft to land, and within minutes, a security perimeter is established and communications go online. This operation tempo is second nature to those within the contingency response community.

With only four contingency response fights and two contingency response groups within the Air National Guard, what these Airmen can achieve within minutes in extreme conditions is exceptional.

"Contingency response is basically an air wing in a box," said Lt. Col. Wes Carter, 172nd Contingency Response Flight commander. "What we do is go out on an airfield that's either in a wartime environment that has been taken over by our Army or Marine Corps counterparts, and we'll come in and take possession of it from them and start air operations. Our goal is to get the first airplane down within 24 hours."

Contingency response units also respond to disaster response during domestic operations. The unique build of these organizations allows them to control an airfield that can't operate due to damages sustained during hurricanes, earthquakes or other natural catastrophes.

"The first time I heard of the CRF was last year during an Agile Combat Employment exercise," said Lt. Col. John Pegg, 100th Fighter Squadron commander. "Our aircraft require quite a bit of support. We've got maintainers, avionics, weapons and other moving parts to get the weapons loaded and delivered." Pegg said that utilizing agencies like the CRF right when you hit the ground makes what would be an impossible feat possible.

For many of the Airmen who participated in exercise Southern Strike 2022, this was the first time they got to participate in an exercise in ACE where airframes from combat Air Forces, mobility Air Forces, as well as Army assets, shared an airfield simultaneously.

"We've got a lot of hands-on training and a lot more action than expected, but that's part of training, and we welcome a challenge," said Airman 1st Class Jose Colom, 156th Contingency Response Group air transportation specialist. "We've been doing a lot of engine-running offloads, which is not very common for us, as well as night vision operations which is new for me."

Lt. Col Todd Morgan, 146th CRF commander, stated that exercises like Southern Strike are essential while contingency response flights are going through a modernization which would allow them to have a team of approximately 29 Airmen who can provide a working air operation anywhere in the world while working one aircraft at all times for 12-hour operations are being organically built into units' force structure.

"This type of training is absolutely crucial for us to build relationships throughout the contingency response community," Morgan said. "During Operation Allies Welcome, both Volk Field and Holloman Air Force Base were controlled by Air National Guard, contingency response elements. No one of those elements was purely organic to their own unit."

The Airmen’s agile and flexible reactions were skillful and effective, with continuous injects being presented to the Airmen throughout the exercise.

"Our injects are realistic, and even if they don't know what to do, there's an after-action report afterward," said Tech. Sgt. Brian Visnic, 821st Contingency Response Squadron flight sergeant. "This is a learning environment. This is where you fail. You want to fail here, so when you do deploy, you'll know what to do."

Traditional Guardsmen who don't get to exercise their skill set daily were able to sharpen their craft and gain valuable knowledge on how to operate as a cohesive entity.

"One thing that was pretty neat is that it's my first exercise and one of the things that I was able to do was rely on my training," said Airman 1st Class Jonathan Milian, 156th Security Operations Squadron security forces specialist. "I just graduated from tech school, and the training they gave us was very beneficial. I just referred back to my training, had great communication as a team and it's been cool seeing how well we all have been able to work together for the first time."

"These are just building blocks, and we continue to add to them. So, taking into account this was some of their first exercise, this is a great ground line for them to start to build upon," said Staff Sgt. Anthony Barnes, 821st CRS fire team leader. "Every day we've come out here, we've seen improvement in areas. We've given them continuous feedback, and I'm pleased with what we've seen."

Carter said the amount of training they were able to accomplish in four days could sometimes take up to 10 years to orchestrate. Even with the accelerated tempo, the professionalism of the Airmen involved made the exercise an invaluable training mission.

"The contingency response community is currently sitting in the direction the Air Force is moving towards," Morgan said. "When you have multi-capable Airmen, you're taking an individual and teaching them not just their specific role, but they will be learning other capabilities. That Airman will be the subject matter expert in their career field, but we can augment personnel where needed."

Morgan said this was his first time operating in Southern Strike. He stated that exercises like this allow them to push their personnel to their training limits while employing the doctrines in which they operate within a safe environment.

Southern Strike is a large-scale, conventional and special operations exercise hosted by the Mississippi National Guard at the Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center, Camp McCain Training Center, Naval Air Station Meridian, the Camp Shelby Joint Forces Training Center, and other training locations. The exercise helps the joint team maintain combat readiness, build relationships, strengthen interoperability and prepare for possible future contingency missions.