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Cope Thunder 06-01 challenges end

by Staff Sgt. A.C. Eggman
Cope Thunder Public Affairs

10/21/2005 - EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AFPN) -- The first winter Cope Thunder ended here Oct. 20 and aircrews found the weather was their main adversary.

But the weather at this remote base -- which grounded many missions -- is exactly why exercise planners picked it to host Pacific Air Force’s premier combat airpower exercise, said Col. Bob Wright, 52nd Air Expeditionary Wing Cope Thunder commander.

“We knew coming to Alaska at this time of year, we would face challenges,” Colonel Wright said. “It makes it more realistic for when we do deploy to places with this type of weather.”

The two-week exercise, which began Oct. 7, involved 87 aircraft and more than 1,000 active duty, Air National Guard and Navy Airmen. The exercise took place on and over the 62,000-square-mile Pacific Alaskan Range Complex. Aircrews flew from here and nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Cope Thunder gives the Kadena squadron the opportunity to train on a great range with terrain and weather that resembles Korea and Afghanistan, said Lt. Col. Brett Nelson, commander of the 320th Special Tactics Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan.

The first day proved planners had picked a tough spot to train. The ground had a blanketed of snow. The next day, black ice covered the roads and flightline, grounding 79 flights.

“The weather impacted some [our flying] days,” said Colonel Wright, from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. “We tried to schedule our missions effectively. We couldn’t make up all of the sorties we lost, but we tried to maximize training while we were here.”

Each day, there were three operations planned with up to 80 sorties per mission. In the first week, even with harsh weather canceling some missions, aircrews flew 451 missions in four days. In the second week, aircrews more than doubled the amount.

“The squadron met the objectives, but certainly not all of them,” said Lt. Col. Russ Quinn, from Spangdahlem’s 22nd Fighter Squadron. “The primary reason has been the weather, here and on the ranges. We were very limited on what we could accomplish the first week.”

Colonel Wright said Cope Thunder better prepares participants for Air and Space Expeditionary Force and other contingencies.

“I want to give them a full-up opportunity to be the best they can be, so when they do go down range they are a well-oiled machine,” Colonel Wright said.

Before Operation Desert Storm, less than one-fifth of the Air Force’s primary fighter pilots had seen actual combat. Historically, most combat losses occurred during an aircrew’s first eight to 10 missions, the colonel said.

“History has shown us that if you can survive the first few sorties [in combat], you’ll survive the war,” he said. “Cope Thunder is making us more capable -- more survivable.”

Colonel Quinn, who has flown in 20 Cope Thunders, said the most important aspect of each exercise is the learning.

“The most important lesson each participant takes away from this exercise is that each individual’s level of effort, talent and energy make a huge impact on the outcome of any large force employment,” Colonel Quinn said.

During the exercise, each aircrew flew an average eight to 10 sorties.

Participants were “Red” defensive forces and “Blue” offensive forces. They included units from Spangdahlem; Kadena and Okinawa air bases, Japan; and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash.

The defenders, flying from Elmendorf, included ground-control intercept and surface-to-air defense forces. Their mission was to simulate threats posed by potentially hostile nations. The forces generally employ defensive counter-air tactics directed by ground-control intercept sites.

The team provided most of the training for Blue force. It flew F-15 Eagles and Navy EA-6B Prowlers.

“We provided threat aircraft for them [Blue team] to shoot at and presented different scenarios or problems for them to solve,” said Capt. Tony Cartwright, Red team air mission commander. He is with the 12th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf.

The offensive force, flying out of Eielson, included the full spectrum of tactical and support units. It included a team of F-16 Fighting Falcons, A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, KC-135 Stratotankers, E-3 Sentries, HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters and HC-130 Hercules transports.

“This Cope Thunder was our Air Expeditionary Force spin-up for any tasking the Air Force needs us to support,” said Lt. Col. Dean Anderson, a Blue pilot from 18th Fighter Squadron at Kadena. “We’ve exercised almost all the core missions we think the Air Force will call on us to do.”

The variety of units and aircraft make the exercise more challenging and exciting, Colonel Wright said.

“When you deploy and work together, camaraderie gets stronger and competition makes it more exciting,” the colonel said. “Competition drives us to get better.”

That was also the charge for the Airmen who did their jobs on the tundra of the training range -- like the combat controllers from Kadena’s special tactics squadron. It has been in Afghanistan, Iraq and Philippines.

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