NASHVILLE, TN, UNITED STATES
Story by Tech. Sgt. Mark Thompson
Tennessee’s 118th Wing conducted the largest combat readiness exercise in its history at Berry Field Air National Guard Base, April 5-9, to prepare for potential near-peer conflicts.
Near-peer is a term used in the military to identify nations of similar military strength and capability.
Throughout the five-day exercise, wing members were evaluated by an Air Combat Command inspection team on their ability to operate in contested and operationally limited environments. The exercise simulated activities at a European forward operating base and home station where bad actors initiated a conflict. This included everything from setting up advanced casualty care stations and securing perimeters from aggressive adversaries, to repairing degraded communications and repelling cyber-attacks.
Designed to test the wing’s ability to employ and sustain combat operations under war-like conditions, exercise planners threw challenging and realistic scenarios at wing members. Day-to-day base operations were put to the test, which pushed organizations to identify weaknesses and make corrections where needed.
“There’s always training value gleaned from an exercise, but the exercise itself is not to train, but instead to validate,” said Maj. Nash LeGrand, chief of 118th Wing Plans and Programs. “Are we doing the right things in our training programs to get our Airmen ready?”
LeGrand added that the wing is moving away from previous training practices and toward meeting the intent of the president, secretary of defense, and Air Force leadership to get ready for the next, near-peer fight.
“The 2018 National Defense Strategy identifies us as coming out of a period of what senior leaders refer to as strategic atrophy,” he said. China and Russia have watched the U.S. military for the past 20 years and put measures in place to counter strengths and capabilities. “We have to continue to train to make sure that we maintain a qualitative advantage over those adversaries,” he said.
“We’ll always find an area that we can improve,” said LeGrand. “Are we doing the things in training that will enable us to perform at the level expected of us in combat and, even more importantly, save our Airmen’s lives? That’s the bottom line,” he said.
Adding complexity and realism, some wing members operated in mock chemical, biological, and radioactive events while performing their duties. When alerted, Airmen quickly suited up in their Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) gear that provides a protective outer layer of clothing and a mask, gloves, and boots. Other wing organizations, including targeting, operations, and cyber operated in degraded environments.
To newer Airmen involved in the exercise, the long days and endless activities might have seemed stressful or challenging, but to Senior Airman India Castillo, with the 118th Force Support Squadron, the exercise gave her an opportunity to strengthen her team. “This was one of the best exercises I’ve worked on,” she said. “The group that was selected for food services was phenomenal. We worked hard, played hard, and had fun.”
She added that the exercise helped prepare her and her unit for future contingencies by providing hands-on MOPP gear use. “We don’t exercise that a lot, and having a reminder of all the MOPP levels was helpful,” she said. “There were challenges, though, like erecting a tent, taking it down in the rain, hail, and sleet, but we worked through it and embraced the suck.”
“Exercises like this help us evaluate our Airmen who must be able to deploy to home station or overseas when called upon to do so,” said Col. Todd Wiles, 118th Wing commander. “Given recent events and the anxiety Americans might feel seeing images of war every day, we’re confident our wing of polished professionals is ready to meet any real-world challenges thrown at it.”