RIVERTON, Wyo. - Nineteen Airmen from the Kentucky Air National Guard’s 123rd Special Tactics Squadron made history April 30 and May 2, facilitating aircraft landings on two highways as part of Exercise Agile Chariot.
The exercise featured MC-130J Commando IIs from the U.S. Air Force’s 1st Special Operations Wing, which led Agile Chariot; A-10 Thunderbolt IIs from the Michigan Air National Guard’s 127th Wing; MH-6M Little Birds from the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment; and MQ-9 Reapers from the U.S. Air Force’s 27th Special Operations Wing.
The Kentucky Air Guardsmen established and controlled both landing zones for the exercise, which tested the concept of Agile Combat Employment.
ACE is an operational maneuver to enhance survivability while rapidly generating combat power. The exercise also employed a forward arming and refueling point, integrated combat turnarounds and the infiltration and exfiltration of Air Force Special Operations personnel with U.S. Army Special Ops Aviation Command troops.
“We accomplished a lot of good learning objectives, but we also expanded on some of the tactics, techniques and procedures that ultimately define ACE,” said Master Sgt. Devin Butcher, lead planner and coordinator for Agile Chariot’s ground force. “How can we get from one location to the next with a minimal amount of aircraft and a minimal amount of gear that’s organic to our units and then be able to ultimately provide options for leadership to be able to make decisions on the best way to employ whatever it is that we’re delivering to these locations?”
Butcher, who served as the unit’s noncommissioned officer in charge of combat control, said the 123rd’s mission set includes domestic operations.
“For instance, when tornadoes, earthquakes or hurricanes strike and an entire airport is completely demolished, my team can go out and find roadways that are suitable on which to land aircraft so we can provide humanitarian aid quickly,” he said. “We don’t have to rely on those airports. We can survey, assess and then be able to provide access to critical health care and supplies via airlift.”
On April 30, the Kentucky Airmen cleared Highway 287 of debris, established a landing zone and conducted air traffic control for inbound aircraft. The team also performed a seven-man parachute insertion from an MC-130 Commando II to a drop zone adjacent to the highway.
On the second day of operations, they again prepared a landing zone for an MC-130. Once the aircraft landed, the team boarded MH-6 Little Birds offloaded from the cargo plane by Soldiers from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. The special tactics troops then performed combat search-and-rescue missions to find simulated injured pilots and extract them from the landing zone on Highway 789.
The STS team was built to deliver a broad range of the unit’s capabilities, including a special tactics officer, combat controllers, pararescuemen, medical personnel to help with combat search-and-rescue and a radio maintainer.
Airmen worked together to secure and control a forward arming and refueling point landing zone in an austere, contested, degraded and operationally limited environment while operating independently without reach-back to higher headquarters.
“From the pararescue perspective, this really showcased our capabilities as operators to integrate with combat controllers and the air players to achieve a common goal,” said Staff Sgt. Nicholas Verdi, a pararescueman from the 123rd. “The more we continue to train to a high level as operators, the more we increase the Air Force’s ability to achieve success in the future battle space.”
Butcher said the experience of the Airmen was key.
“The average individual on our team has anywhere from 10 to 13 years of experience as Air Force Special Warfare Airmen,” he said. “That’s critical in these no-fail types of environments because we’re landing aircraft on roadways that are meant to carry cars and trucks, not planes. We surveyed the highways to test suitability, and then we landed aircraft on a couple of roads over a couple of days. A mere 30 minutes later, we reopened the roadways, and there were vehicles back on them as if nothing had ever happened.”
AFSOC and Total Force organizations have diligently trained on ACE concepts. Examples include A-10s and C-146As landing on a Michigan highway and M-28 and C-146As taking off and landing from Latvian roads. Agile Chariot featured more aircraft participating in highway landings than ever — including the first MQ-9 Reaper landing on a U.S. road.
Butcher said the exercise presented a lot of challenges.
“There were a lot of moving parts — organizations like the Wyoming Department of Transportation, Homeland Security, the FBI and the FAA,” he said. “It’s not just going in and landing at an airfield. We had to get permission to be able to shut down the highway. And air traffic control had never had an MQ-9 descend from class-A airspace and land on a highway. We essentially paved the way of how that should look so that we can continue to build on these lessons learned.”
Staff Sgt. Philip Trojanowski, a combat controller with the 123rd, said the exercise was an eye-opening experience.
“To be a part of the planning process for such a large-scale exercise like this, from the beginning, all the way through execution, really broadens your perspective on what’s possible for future operations,” Trojanowski said. “What we can do as a Total Force is pretty much limitless.”
Butcher said the exercise was all about providing options to Air Force leadership.
“We’re paving the way for what we think ‘forward’ is going to look like,” he said. “It’s our responsibility to provide options for the access and placement of all our assets — not just Air Force, but Army, Navy, Marines — everybody.”