EAST GRANBY, Conn. --
Airmen from the 103rd Airlift Wing helped develop future C-130H Hercules tactical airlift operations during exercise Sentry Storm 2021. The exercise was hosted by the West Virginia Air National Guard July 18-23 at Camp Branch in Logan County, Yeager Airport in Charleston, and Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport in Martinsburg.
Sentry Storm is a joint training environment enabling Airmen and Soldiers to exercise their skills to prevail over near-peer competitors while applying Agile Combat Employment concepts.
The U.S. Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment concept calls for collaboration across major commands to design and implement processes in which aircraft can be resupplied and launched from austere locations in large geographic regions with limited access to established bases.
“The focus of Sentry Storm this year was how to operate tactical mobility aircraft in an ACE construct,” said Capt. Brian Hinckley, 103rd Operations Group pilot and tactician. “So what we did was basically a microcosm of what we would do in the real world.”
Sentry Storm participants included Air National Guard, Army National Guard, Air Force Reserve, Navy, Air Force and Civil Air Patrol units. Twenty-one aircraft to include C-130s, C-17s, MH-60s, A-10s, Cessna 172, and UH-1N were employed for the training.
Hinckley described the operations as a “hub and spoke” model.
“[In a real world scenario,] you would have a main base somewhere further back from the fight that’s protected and then multiple spokes, or forward operating bases, operating at different levels of capacity and for different amounts of time,” said Hinckley. “So in this scenario, we had C-17s operating with Martinsburg as a hub and Yeager Airport in Charleston as its spoke. On the tactical side, the C-130s would be operating from the spoke to multiple small forward operating bases, and in this case we used Camp Branch which is their drop zone and landing zone.”
Air National Guardsmen turned Camp Branch from a barren landscape into a forward operating base, complete with autonomous power, food, and tents for 100 people.
The operation began with a 123rd Airlift Wing C-130 from Kentucky airdropping 123rd Special Tactics Squadron members who secured the airfield. The 123rd Contingency Response Group followed in other C-130 flights and set up the location as a working airfield for follow-on support elements.
“For Connecticut’s part, we provided tactics and mission planning support, intelligence support, aerial port, and we provided one aircraft with crews that was forward deployed between Yeager Airport and Camp Branch for the entire week,” said Hinckley. “There were radio communications, mission planning, intelligence support, and logistics readiness support to operate sorties out of there. In that five days we operated upward of 90 total sorties between all the aircraft.”
Airmen from the 103rd Logistics Readiness Squadron assisted the 123rd CRG loading and unloading cargo from C-130 aircraft with engines running, as well as recovery of airdropped cargo.
Participants operated in a variety of training scenarios, including airdrops, unimproved surface landings, aeromedical evacuation, and a four-ship formation flight with three C-130H and one C-130J aircraft, each from a different unit.
“A lot of the things we did were first-time events for most of us,” said Maj. Michael Jacoby, 118th Airlift Squadron pilot. “We took a newer, younger crew out there and gave them these challenges that we don’t always have during our local training missions and put us to the test. It just goes to show that we can go out and execute those missions.”
The exercise proved valuable in teaching the ACE construct to junior Airmen who will help lead these operations in the future.
“It’s a different mindset—it’s about speed,” said Senior Airman Samuel Stiger, 103rd Logistics Readiness Squadron air transportation specialist. “In an austere environment you want to get those planes back off the ground as quickly as possible. What I would emphasize is the ability to anticipate what the next move or next two or three moves are going to be, so when you get to that point you know what you’re doing and where everybody is. It was an eye-opening experience and one that I believe is going to help me become a better Airman.”
A key piece of the Agile Combat Employment model is the multi-capable Airman concept, in which members are able to operate outside their defined roles to accomplish the mission.
“In order to run a base with 100 people, we have to find a way to safely keep people proficient in a broader skill-set,” said Hinckley. “A fuels Airman may be asked to go help load cargo onto an airplane. Flight engineers may have to be doing maintenance with crew chiefs. Anybody needs to be able to be tapped for base defense.”
These multi-capable Airmen then need to be able to execute the mission with minimal reach back to command and control for direction.
“It’s getting comfortable with flexibility for junior leadership—our staff and technical sergeants, lieutenants, and captains having levels of autonomy that we’re not necessarily used to because we didn’t need to give them that before,” said Hinckley. “We have to be okay with people being flexible at lower levels of leadership.”
This flexibility is already on display as the U.S. Air Force empowers units like the 103rd Airlift Wing to develop the operations of tomorrow.
“This is leadership going down to the squadrons and presenting the problem, the squadrons conducting operations like this, figuring out how to work things, and then going back to leadership with the answers as to how we can fight that way,” said Hinckley. “We tried some concepts out there and they worked, so we have forward movement and can report back up as to how we would operate in this type of environment as an airlift community.”
Moving forward, the 103rd plans to incorporate the lessons learned and contacts developed through participation in the exercise into future training to continually focus on prevailing over a near-peer competitor.
“The cross-talk between the C-130 community and the Guard airlift community in general is a huge opportunity in any context, but especially useful in the context of ACE and the doctrine we’ll be using going forward as a whole Department of Defense,” said Hinckley. “Having gone through it, I think we came back with specific actionable ways to incorporate that into what we do at home right now.”