Vermont Airmen test agility during multi-state exercise

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Richard Mekkri
  • 158th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Throughout the course of two weeks, nearly 260 personnel from the Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing left the snow, sleet and freezing temperatures of a New England winter and made their way to the sunshine and more moderate climes of northern Georgia.

These Airmen were not, however, on vacation—they were joining other Airmen and civilians from across the country to participate in the Agile Combat Employment exercise, “Maple Thunder” which ran from January 22-February 3, 2024.

“ACE is short for ‘agile combat employment’ and it’s a phrase we’ve been talking about in the Air Force for a couple of years now,” said Dr. Sandeep Mulgund, senior advisor to the deputy chief of staff for operations at Headquarters, Air Force, the Pentagon. According to Air Force doctrine, ACE requires a revolutionary change in how the Air Force thinks about and conducts operations within the modern operational environment. It is a model that the 158th FW has been implementing for close to a year.

“Building on their last major exercise in March 2023 [when the 158th FW trained at Fort Drum, New York], the Green Mountain Boys and their mission partners across the Air National Guard, and in the joint force, increased the complexity in this event to tackle, head-on, the challenges that come with pivoting from ACE into execution of the air tasking order,” Mulgund said. “Maple Thunder has raised the bar on how we sharpen our skills at ACE.”

VIDEO | 01:50 | Airmen from the 158th Fighter Wing join hundreds of servicemembers from multiple states to participate in Maple Thunder. This Air National Guard-sponsored event spans training locations in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Vermont, where Airmen will test and evaluate their abilities to operate in a complex Agile Combat Employment scenarios.
Skills employed during last year’s exercise, such as simultaneously flying combat sorties from multiple locations and recovering and restoring an air base, were some of the exercise objectives. To sharpen these skills, Airmen are “deployed” to austere environments outside of their normal operating areas.

“We’re practicing the forward deployment of forces in theater from a main operating base. In this case, the Burlington International Airport, to a forward-operating site,” said National Guard Bureau exercise director Lt. Col. Robert Peel, an F-35 Lightning II pilot assigned to the 134th Fighter Squadron, 158th Fighter Wing. “We have taken over the CRTC [Combat Readiness Training Center] here in Savannah, as our FOS.”

According to Peel, there are more than a half dozen sites, known as clusters or contingency locations, that fall under the FOS and any one can be used to position Airmen to quickly aid in a combat situation. One of those locations that the 158th utilized during Maple Thunder was in South Carolina at the North Auxiliary Airfield at Joint Base Charleston. Nearly a three-hour drive away from Savannah, the north auxiliary site is a desolate location meant to mirror an austere environment in which to operate. To mimic actual hardships of deployed situation, seven other units and/or civilian entities joined the Green Mountain Boys in the exercise.

One of the hardship scenarios created for Maple Thunder was the need to refuel the F-35s in harsh or unfamiliar locations. To do this, a forward area refueling point needed to occur.

FARP establishes a way for Airmen to effectively refuel aircraft in remote locations when air-to-air refueling is not possible or when fueling stations are not accessible.

Service members and C-130 Hercules aircraft from the Rhode Island Air National Guard’s 143rd Airlift Wing, in North Kingstown, and the Connecticut Air National Guard’s 103rd Airlift Wing in Windsor Locks, as well as a KC-130J assigned to the Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 234, Marine Aircraft Group 41, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, Fort Worth, Texas, provided FARP capabilities.

The importance of FARP capabilities is that they allow for aircraft refueling at a distance closer to their Area of Operations than their main operating base. Although not a new concept, this is a milestone for the Vermont Air National Guard.

“This is the first time we’ve performed a FARP with our F-35s,” said 158th Operations Group commander, Col. Michael Blair. “You’re quickly getting airborne and getting to the job sooner without having to waste time going to a base that’s farther away.”

From providing FARP capabilities, to combat communications set-up, other participants that took part in Maple Thunder were the 232nd Combat Communications Squadron, Abston Air National Guard Station, Montgomery, Alabama; 282nd Combat Communications Squadron, 104th Fighter Wing, Westfield, Massachusetts; a U.S. Marine Corps KC-130; and ALIA, an electric aircraft provided by Beta Technologies (via AFWERX, the innovation arm of the Department of the Air Force), South Burlington.

With multiple units participating, there were many moving parts throughout Maple Thunder. According to Mulgund, “Lessons learned from this exercise will support the evolution of ACE capabilities, doctrine and training to meet the demands of an air fight against a peer adversary.”