SMOKY HILL AIR NATIONAL GUARD RANGE, Kan. – Military units from across the United States converged in Kansas in June for Exercise Gunslinger, a large-scale joint exercise to test air and ground combat capabilities in a contested environment.
The two main players in the exercise were the U.S. Marine Reserves’ 4th Marine Aircraft Wing and the Kansas Air National Guard’s 134th Air Control Squadron, assigned to the 184th Wing at McConnell Air Force Base.
The Marines’ overall mission was to practice Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, a concept similar to the World War II island-hopping campaign. The goal is to establish small bases of support on island chains in the Indo-Pacific region.
The Kansas Air National Guard’s mission was to train for Agile Combat Employment, an Air Force strategy requiring Airmen to be ready to execute missions quickly in unpredictable ways, respond rapidly to enemy movements, and conduct operations with joint and coalition forces partners.
The primary location for the exercise was Smoky Hill Air National Guard Range near Salina.
The concept of Exercise Gunslinger began about a year ago when Air National Guard Lt. Col. Herman Norwood, former commander of the 134th ACS, and Marine Reserves Lt. Col. Nicholas Cruz, former operations officer, 4th MAW, discussed joint training opportunities.
Norwood recommended an exercise at Smoky Hill Air National Guard Range. They named it Gunslinger as a hat tip to Kansas’ Wild West heritage and as a reference to the many bullets and rockets that would be used.
Both officers moved to new positions before the exercise, but their teams took it from there.
“We got together and talked about how ground-based command and control career fields weren’t necessarily getting the best training, we feel, that’s going to help for the next conflict that we go into,” said Tech. Sgt. Hunter Thurston, weapons officer, 134th ACS. “It started out as a ground-based command and control exercise primarily supported by logistics and mobility, plus fighters and tankers.”
As the planning progressed, more units saw value in the opportunity to train as a joint force. The objective quickly changed from ground-based command and control training to a large-scale force employment exercise.
“We’re not only getting good training for ground-based controllers but also getting some value added for fighters, helicopters, logistics and mobility,” said Thurston.
More than 1,300 Marines from 11 training centers across the United States deployed throughout Kansas, including Great Bend, Salina, Wichita and Wilson Lake.
The 134th ACS, operating from McConnell Air Force Base, was the primary ground-based control unit, speaking directly with aircrews to maintain safety, check-in/check-out procedures, and aerial refueling missions.
Marine personnel deployed a tactical operations center near Great Bend, providing capabilities similar to the 134th ACS. Additionally, U.S. Air Force E-3 Sentries from Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, provided command and control from the sky through airborne warning and control systems.
The three command and control entities took turns advising aircrews during combat missions, identifying friendly forces and enemy threats.
“The first mission of the exercise was a defensive counter-air mission,” said Thurston. “We were controlling all of the F-18s against the F-5 aggressors the Marines brought. The 134th was responsible for air-to-air control, giving picture calls of what the adversary formation looked like from an air perspective, and then giving safety point-outs as well as tactical air point-outs.”
Throughout the exercise, Marine ground forces coordinated air assaults, insertion and extraction, and medical evacuation missions with fighters and helicopters from the Air Force, Marines and Army.
“Aircraft flew into our air space, hit the tankers, and engaged in air-to-air combat,” said Maj. Scott Blechle, director of operations, Detachment 1, Smoky Hill ANG Range. “Once they were done with that portion, they flew down into the lower air space where Marine air controllers took over, handed them off to joint terminal attack controllers, and then JTACs started working close air support here on the range.”
Smoky Hill ANG Range is the largest and busiest weapons range in the Air National Guard. The 34,000-acre range, with operational air space from Salina to western Kansas, is operated and maintained by 35 personnel assigned to Detachment 1 of the 184th Wing.
“The Marines were so impressed by the facilities at Smoky Hill and how inexpensive it was to train there that they’re already looking at doing future training events at the range,” said Lt. Col. Joe Deeds, director of staff-Air, Kansas National Guard.
The personnel at Smoky Hill ANG Range worked day and night to make sure the operations ran smoothly. They repaired roads damaged during missions, extinguished grass fires, and cut fire breaks. They also controlled all the scheduling for air assets and ground movements to ensure the safety of all exercise participants.
Although Exercise Gunslinger began as a couple of squadrons wanting to learn from each other, it grew to something more significant.
“Exercise Gunslinger provided a unique opportunity for Air National Guard and Marine Reserves personnel to coordinate air operations with multi-service and multiplatform aircrews,” said Col. Jason Knobbe, commander, 184th Wing. “This joint exercise, which included active, Reserve, and Guard units from around the nation, showcased the talents and teamwork of the joint force and the capabilities of the 184th Wing, Team McConnell, and Smoky Hill Air National Guard Range.”