Illinois Air Guard Unit Expands Capabilities Through ACE Exercise

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. Ken Stephens
  • 126th Air Refueling Wing

The 126th Operations Group, located at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, deployed 44 personnel to Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia, Feb. 6-10, 2023, for Agile Combat Employment training to increase survivability while generating combat power.

The KC-135 Total Force aerial refueling unit, assigned to the Illinois Air National Guard, used two of their Stratotankers to exercise the Air Force’s ACE concept for a week to expand their aircrew and support personnel’s ability to conduct operations at contested and degraded locations.

“This exercise was critical for our members to train in an environment where they must self-sufficiently operate to ensure we are ready to respond to any contingency, anytime, anywhere,” said Lt. Col. Lee Rinella, 108th Air Refueling Squadron commander.

This concept promotes the idea of multi-capable Airmen, who, according to an Air Force doctrine note, are trained in expeditionary skills and capable of accomplishing tasks outside of their core Air Force specialty.

The event included representatives from all three of the group’s assigned squadrons, the 108th Air Refueling Squadron, the 906th Air Refueling Squadron, and the 126th Operations Support Squadron.

“We’re taking our aircrew and putting them outside of their comfort zone,” said Lt. Col. Brent Smith, Chief of Standards and Evaluations for the group.

“We’ve taken away all the comforts that crews normally have access to,” Smith said. “This is forcing them to plan every single mission themselves. The crews are getting together the day prior and planning their mission. They’re doing self-plan, self-file, they’re finding their own weather products, they’re calling the receivers themselves, and they’re going out and they’re doing the mission.”

In addition to their own mission planning, crews are learning how to launch and recover KC-135s without the benefit of trained maintenance personnel.

“This allows us to take some of those fundamental core tasks that a maintenance crew chief would do as far as servicing oil and hydraulic fluids, or putting fuel on the aircraft, and help the aircrew have more knowledge. It allows us to do those things in an environment where we may not have maintainers with us to keep the mission moving forward,” said Master Sgt. Ashley Bradford, an instructor and evaluator of the in-flight refueling specialists for the group.

Bradford stressed the importance of this training.

“It means that at a moment’s notice we are able to pick up, move anywhere that we could possibly land our aircraft, and be able to still do our job, maintain the aircraft, and turn and continue to do operations, if necessary,” said Bradford.

One of the few tools they did bring was a Starlink satellite internet unit, provided by the 375th Air Mobility Wing, to do a proof-of-concept test for ensuring connectivity during degraded command and control environments.

“We took that unit and plugged it into the power of the KC-135 and we set up a Starlink on the ramp. By doing that we were able to successfully establish connectivity with a satellite and link up a mission planning computer as well as several iPads in order to download mission related data,” Smith said.

This can provide vital command and control communication updates from higher authorities at places that wouldn’t have such access, according to Smith.

In addition to mission operation planning and aircraft maintenance, the team practiced their Aircrew Contamination Control Area procedures that assist aircrew who may be contaminated with chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear matter in removing their gear. This training was provided by a multi-capable Airmen team led by the aircrew flight equipment shop.

Senior Master Sgt. Matt Luebeck, the superintendent of aircrew flight equipment, also had his Airmen train in new skills in an effort to be truly multi-capable.

“We are one of the support entities and I think it’s beneficial for the Airmen to understand that we may be pulled into situations where we’re doing things that we’re not used to as well. We may have to marshal in an aircraft, we may have to help a crew chief replace a part, we may have to refuel if necessary,” said Luebeck.

While some of these skills aren’t new to the aircrew, they aren’t regularly practiced. This type of training ensures they stay current.

“We’re taking the skills that we know they have, but they’re a little rusty, we’re sharpening that blade and making sure that they’re fine-tuned to do these tasks,” said Smith.

With the Air Force always involved in world-wide operations, whether exercises with allied nations, real world operations or humanitarian relief efforts, the 126th Operations Group is prepared for their next mission, wherever it lands them.

“In the future we may find ourselves in a situation where aircrew members are servicing the aircraft themselves, something that we’re not use to. We’re trained to it, but we don’t ever do it, so we’re out here actually doing that task to make sure that we honed our skills for the future,” said Smith.