By Season Osterfeld, Fort Riley Public AffairsMay 2, 2017
FORT RILEY, Kan. -- Airmen of the 34th Weapons Squadron from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, conducted a two-week long training exercise at Douthit Gunnery Complex and Marshall Army Airfield at Fort Riley, Kansas, as well as Smoky Hill Air National Guard Range in Salina, Kansas, April 2 through 14.
One hundred fifty Airmen, three HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters and an HC-130J Combat King II fixed wing aircraft came to Fort Riley for their Terminal Area Employment phase of the Weapons Instructor Course in the United States Air Force Weapons School. The students in the program, referred to as Weapons Officer undergraduates, consisted of four of them training with the HH-60s and four of them training on the C-130s. The doctorate-level program is designed to create future leaders within the Air Force who will act as liaisons and experts in joint Air Force integration with other branches of service, said Lt. Col. Evan Scaggs, 34th WPS.
The mission of the 34th WPS is combat search and rescue. Using the C-130s, HH-60s and Airmen referred to as "Guardian Angels," they push their way into another countries airspace and occupy it for a time until they are able to rescue the survivor, nicknamed "Jack." The Guardian Angels act as the men on the ground who jump from the aircraft to collect the survivor, Evans said. They use whatever resources they have to complete their rescue operations.
"Our mission is combat search and rescue, CSAR," he said. "Inside the CSAR triad, you have three pieces. There's the HH-60 Pave Hawk, it's just like a Black Hawk, but we have refueling probes and we have some specialized gear we use to find people. Then we have the HC-130J model and that's the newest aircraft in the Air Force arsenal. It has an awesome capability to locate people, to penetrate hostile areas, things like that … Then the third leg is the Guardian Angel weapons system -- they're the men in the loop. They're basically special forces type people."
While training at the USAFWS, the Guardian Angel component is lacking, but that does not stop the HH-60 and C-130 training from continuing as it would in real world scenarios for the students.
The Terminal Area Employment phase training the students underwent refers to the time just prior to rescuing the survivor when the Airmen are assessing the situation on the status and location of the survivor, of any potential threats, eliminating threats if needed and locating safe collection or landing points, among other activities.
"Terminal Employment -- we usually fly really long distances to get where we're going and we get fed information about the guy we're going to recover and generally, right before, we'll get a 15 line (a document) and that is all the information on this guy or gal," Scaggs said.
While training at Fort Riley, the students received multiple scenarios that ramped up in complexity for them to assess, plan and execute in order to safely survive and rescue "Jack." In their scenarios, they have already survived the fight and made their way to the terminal area, they need to determine what other threats, if any, still exist and how to get "Jack."
"This is probably the most challenging phase of training to this point the HH-60 students will go through in this syllabus and what we are challenging is the student's decision making process in the terminal employment," said Maj. Brough McDonald, 34th WPS.
To create more complexity in their scenarios, new factors were added including a reduction to complete lack of instructor assistance, team variables, additional survivors in different areas they needed to rescue and varying threats from enemy forces.
"We want to see how they look at the battle space, figure out what needs to die first and then watch how they use their formation to attack it," McDonald said. "We want to see how efficient their attacks are."
The students are also denied any other assets, they only have themselves and their team with the HH-60. McDonald said the instructors are observing the students to see how to integrate tactics they've learned and lead their teams in the mission.
Two HH-60s went out together onto the range to eliminate threats. After threats have been removed, one crew rescues the survivor while the other helicopter circles the area acting as a guard until both are able to leave together.
Following the completion of the scenarios, the students presented their operation to the instructors and peers. The students also discuss what they believe ground forces were thinking and how the Airmen affected them, what was to their benefit and more. The instructors and students then discuss and analyze the mission to determine strengths, weaknesses, right or wrong moves, proper language used and so forth, McDonald said.
There are also recordings from inside the cockpit, heads up display and of the GPS of the helicopter or aircraft during the training the Airmen review after in the classroom.
"We can look at it with a very critical eye," he said. "We expect the students to critique things from correct and incorrect terms … We're looking for our students to call that out … We want them to identify and effectively teach in the debrief. They will have what we call learning points, which is a quick on the spot correction, or they will data gather."
Like the HH-60 students, the C-130 students conducted training through multiple scenarios. For them, they provided supply drops to survivors, air support and simulated personnel drops. Following their training, they conducted debriefs where they analyzed and assessed the mission, what did and didn't work and more, Scaggs said.
The training was predominately for the students going through the USAFWS, but it also provided training opportunities for the enlisted Airmen who assisted with flying and operating the weapons. Additionally, three enlisted Airmen were going through a seven-week-long Advanced Tactics Course.
This was the first time the 34th WPS conducted training at Fort Riley, he said. Normally they would travel to Boise, Idaho, however, with the new C-130J, they were looking for an area that would allow them to train with the aircraft and helicopters when they heard about the facilities at Fort Riley.
"The gun range out here at Douthit is digital -- it's the state of the art gun range that you could shoot at," Scaggs said. "My guys were blown away."
However, because of the location difference for Nellis Air Force Base and Fort Riley, the 34th WPS Airmen needed to find a way to transport all of their aircraft and personnel, he said. They reached out to the 57th Weapons Squadron from McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, to transport them with a C-17 Globemaster III, which they agreed to.
"This is the first time we have ever organically deployed from the weapons school using two C-17s carrying three HH-60s, 150 personnel and then the HC-130 organically deploying from Nellis as well," he said.
The Airmen also faced additional challenges when they arrived at Fort Riley, but Scaggs said Soldiers and civilian personnel went above and beyond to see all their needs were met. This included transport ammunition for the aircraft to Douthit Gunnery Complex and having Fort Riley Soldiers establish a Forward Arming and Refueling Point so the helicopters could refuel or resupply on ammunition and continue training without interruption.
"That entire FARP is operational because the Army and the support units said 'yeah, we'll take the time and support you for two weeks,'" McDonald said. "My intent is that we forge a relationship with Fort Riley and the tenant units to make this a regular thing every six months."
McDonald said the range targets responded faster to being hit, the area they had to train in was larger and being able to have access to the tower personnel during their debriefings improved their analysis.
"Coming out to this range, it's larger, it's more responsive," he said. "I'm very pleased with the utilization of this. Everything about it is impressive."