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NEWS | Feb. 8, 2024

Vermont Airmen Test Agility During Multistate Exercise

By Tech. Sgt. Richard Mekkri, 158th Fighter Wing

SAVANNAH, Ga. - Nearly 260 members of the Vermont Air National Guard’s 158th Fighter Wing and other Airmen and civilians from across the country participated in the ACE exercise Maple Thunder Jan. 22-Feb. 3.

“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 Sandeep Mulgund, senior adviser to the deputy chief of staff for operations at Headquarters, Air Force, at the Pentagon.

According to Air Force doctrine, ACE requires a revolutionary change in how the Air Force conducts operations. The 158th Fighter Wing has been implementing this model for nearly a year.

“Maple Thunder has raised the bar on how we sharpen our skills at ACE,” said Mulgund. 

Skills employed during last year’s exercise in Fort Drum, New York, 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 their typical 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 (FOS),” said Lt. Col. Robert Peel, National Guard Bureau exercise director and 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.”

Peel said more than a half dozen sites, known as clusters or contingency locations, fall under the FOS. Airmen could use any of them to aid in a combat situation quickly. 

One of those locations the 158th used during Maple Thunder was in South Carolina at the North Auxiliary Airfield at Joint Base Charleston. Nearly a three-hour drive from Savannah, the North Auxiliary site is a desolate location that mirrors an austere environment. Seven other units and civilian entities joined the Green Mountain Boys in the exercise to mimic an actual deployed situation.

One of the hardship scenarios created for Maple Thunder required refueling F-35s in harsh or unfamiliar locations. To do this, a FARP was needed.

FARP, or Forward Area Refueling Point, establishes a way for Airmen to refuel aircraft effectively in remote locations when air-to-air refueling is not possible or when fueling stations are inaccessible.

Service members and C-130 Hercules aircraft from the Rhode Island Air National Guard’s 143rd Airlift Wing and the Connecticut Air National Guard’s 103rd Airlift Wing, and 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.

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

Other Maple Thunder participants included 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, Vermont.

“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,” Mulgund said.



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