KALLAX AIR BASE, Sweden -- U.S. Airmen, equipment and F-16CJ Fighting Falcon aircraft assigned to the South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing successfully finished the three-week Arctic Challenge Exercise 19.
ACE 19 is a biennial Nordic aviation exercise that serves to amplify scenario-based defensive training and interaction between countries across northern Europe.
“Training exercises like ACE 19 are critical because this region is full of potential adversaries with a robust air threat. And the way that threat will be dealt with is by all the partner nations coming together. Interoperability is what we sought to work on and grow,” said Col. Akshai Gandhi, 169th Fighter Wing commander.
The South Carolina Air National Guard deployed nearly 200 Airmen and a dozen F-16s from McEntire Joint National Guard Base to Sweden. During the exercise, U.S. forces trained with eight other militaries including Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
In addition to the South Carolina Air National Guard forces at Kallax Air Base, the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing sent Airmen and F-15C Eagle aircraft to Bodø, Norway. The Iowa Air National Guard’s 185th Air Refueling Wing and the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 108th Wing deployed Airmen and KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft to Orland, Norway. Lastly, the U.S. Marine Corps sent Marines and F/A-18 Hornet aircraft from the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing to Rovaniemi Air Base, Finland, and a Tactical Air Operations Center and Marines from the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing to Jokkmokk, Sweden.
All in all, 140 aircraft and 4,000 military personnel from nine nations participated in ACE 19. Swedish Air Force Lt. Col. Tobias Wikstrom, wing commander flying at Kallax Air Base, stated approximately 1,600 sorties were flown for ACE 19. During some flight missions, as many as 100 combat aircraft were in the exercise airspace simultaneously. The Arctic Challenge Exercise provided participating countries a unique opportunity to plan and execute a large multinational air operation. The exercise concept was based on a United Nations mandate to operate a large international stabilization force against a highly-skilled, near-peer competitor. All facets of air operations were tested, including offensive and defensive scenarios consisting of both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.
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One of the reasons the South Carolina ANG was invited to participate in this year’s exercise was to demonstrate to partner nations their ability to suppress enemy air defenses, in a realistic training environment.
“I think they’ve learned quite a bit about the unique mission of the suppression of enemy air defenses, SEAD, which the 169th FW jets have provided. SEAD was not a mission set that they were overly familiar with. They really didn’t see it in action until we arrived. The last ACE exercise in 2017 did not have any Block 52s (SEAD capable F-16s) partake. That was something we brought to the table this time which was different,” said Maj. Shaun Hoeltje, the South Carolina ANG’s ACE 19 project officer.
In addition to partner nations learning more about SEAD, the South Carolina ANG also learned some things during ACE 19.
“One of the things we’re learning is how to operate in the arctic region. It is a challenging environment and it is a good bit different than some of the desert environments or the typical climate in the United States. We’re also learning what some of their capabilities are. We’ve learned that they’re all very professional air forces with slightly different approaches. We’re bridging those gaps so we’ll be a more effective fighting team if that day ever comes,” Gandhi said.
During their TDY, 169th FW maintenance personnel and pilots had numerous opportunities for professional exchanges with their Swedish Air Force counterparts. The F-16 pilots interacted closely with the JAS 39 Gripen pilots with both hands-on inspections of aircraft as well as orientation flights. And the maintainers got to learn more about how each other’s shops do business.
“Participating in an exercise like ACE 19 is really important to the South Carolina Air National Guard because it allows us to further grow relationships with our partner nations. As we bring our aircraft and our systems into play during this exercise, they are learning how to best utilize these capabilities and how to best integrate what we bring to the fight,” Gandhi said.