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Bamboo Eagle’s scale provides valuable lessons for Hill Airmen

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah -- Airmen from the active duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings deployed with the 421st Fighter Squadron and Fighter Generation Squadron recently returned from Bamboo Eagle, a week-long exercise that took place over expanses of the western United States and eastern Pacific Ocean. 

Conducted by the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center, the exercise ran during what is typically the third week of Red Flag. Instead of staying at Nellis AFB, Nev., units dispersed across nearly a dozen forward operating locations while Nellis served as the Air Expeditionary Wing hub. The goals were agile combat employment, command and control, air superiority and maritime operations. During Bamboo Eagle, the 421st FS operated primarily from Edwards AFB, Calif.

Carried out by more than 3,000 servicemembers from 24 units across four branches of the Department of Defense, partner and allied nations, Bamboo Eagle provided a “combat-representative, high-end conflict” to meet the readiness required for success in “a world that continues to see unprecedented change.”

“Being static simply isn’t an option. To win, we must train and learn to be more agile while maintaining effectiveness and lethality,” said Col. Michael Gette, 388th Fighter Wing commander, prior to Red Flag and Bamboo Eagle. “Taking the great training environment already present at Red Flag and combining these ACE elements makes this a tremendous learning opportunity.”

Agile combat employment complicates the enemy’s targeting decisions and increases survivability but presents its own challenges for friendly forces, calling for units to operate across great distances apart from the main operating base, in sometimes austere locations, possibly cut off from supply and communications.

“During Bamboo Eagle we exercised airborne mission command of joint air operations in a complex environment, over extreme distances, with limited or stale information,” said Lt. Col. Nathan Heguy, 421st FS commander. “These are challenges many of our pilots have not seen before and can’t be replicated during our daily training at Hill.”

The mission was to demonstrate air superiority against fourth and fifth-generation aircraft, long-range bombers, and cruise missiles. For their part, the F-35 pilots in the 421st were largely tasked with offensive-counter-air against a variety of threats.

“We were targeting and defending against constantly moving threats in the maritime domain,” Heguy said. “Flying hundreds of miles at night, in weather, air refueling and employing the F-35, while overcoming expeditionary communications and the physiological challenges of operating on this scale, has made our young pilots far more ready for ‘Night One’ of a major combat operation.”

There aren’t many opportunities in Utah to fly over the ocean and integrate with U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, British and Australian forces.

“The biggest value of these exercises is the opportunity to learn how other platforms work, what their limitations are, and how their strengths can be leveraged to an advantage in the mission,” said Maj. Graeme Ross, 421st FS director of operations.

Sometimes, these tactical and communications differences between platforms, services and nations can lead to friction in the mission planning process. The interoperability of the F-35 helps alleviate some of these issues.

“The F-35 being mostly common across services and partner nations provides a big advantage in understanding each other’s capabilities and allows us to focus primarily on solving the tactical problem,” Ross said.

The 421st FGS maintainers also had exchange opportunities to broaden their skills working with joint and partner F-35s.

For maintainers, the exercise forced them to rely on their logistics training and experience to ensure the tools, equipment and manpower for operational F-35 sustainment were in place at the forward operating locations. They also relied on their Multi-Cahpable Airmen manpower.

“Without MCA, which has produced Mission Ready Airmen capable of rapidly moving through the area of responsibility, we would have had delays and difficulties generating and continuing sorties,” said Maj. Bryan Butler, 421st FGS commander.

Developing an “MCA Mindset” has been a priority for 388 FW maintainers over the past year.

“Opportunities like this help our maintainers understand why we need them to focus on building their MCA and Mission Ready Airmen skillsets,” Butler said. “They will reduce our manpower footprint and advance the strategic capabilities we need to win future conflicts.”