NORTH FORT HOOD, Texas – The Soldiers of Task Force Phoenix faced several worst-case scenarios during a Culminating Training Exercise (CTE) over 10 days in April 2021. Indirect fire attacks, downed aircraft, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on ground vehicles—everything but the kitchen sink was thrown at them.
This occurred while the Task Force was executing typical aviation tasks its Soldiers will perform during an upcoming deployment overseas, such as VIP flights and Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) operations.
“The CTE prepared us not only for the mission we’ll be expected to perform downrange, but for many unplanned contingencies as well,” Task Force Phoenix commander Col. Alan Gronewold said. “We brought together units from nine states to form a team and we conducted pretty intense operations to build that team.”
Toward the end of the CTE when events were coming to a head, a real-world Texas rainstorm created additional challenges, temporarily grounding aircraft due to lightning, high winds and low visibility.
“Train to your worst day in theater; your hardest day of the deployment should be here at Fort Hood,” 166th Aviation Brigade Commander Col. Jennifer Reynolds told the Soldiers of Task Force Phoenix at the midpoint of the exercise.
First Army Division West’s 166th Aviation Brigade, based at Fort Hood, is responsible for all Army Reserve and National Guard aviation mobilization training and validation for deployment. Reynolds and her team of Observer, Controller/Trainers (OC/Ts) ran the CTE.
The purpose of the exercise was to enable the brigade headquarters staff, battalion staff sections and line companies to run through some of the most difficult scenarios they could potentially encounter once they commence their mission providing full-spectrum aviation operations to U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) Operation Spartan Shield and Operation Inherent Resolve.
“It’s always challenging when you bring together more than 1,100 Soldiers from nine states,” Task Force Phoenix Chief of Operations (CHOPS) Maj. Matt Jackson said. “We executed four air assault missions, almost 30 MEDEVAC scenarios, four downed aircraft recovery missions and multiple convoys while providing mission command at the battalion and brigade levels. We proved that we’re ready and trained for our mission overseas.”
Task Force Phoenix has been at North Fort Hood for a month-and-a-half of mobilization readiness training and pre-deployment administrative tasks. The CTE was the final required training event to validate before the Task Force commences its mission. In addition to training, the Task Force has simultaneously been sending advanced parties to Kuwait and undergoing a load out of equipment.
Major training events during the CTE involved MEDEVAC and Downed Aircraft Recovery Team (DART) missions, Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) operations, convoys, and culminated with a complex air assault raid on an enemy position. Pilots and crew chiefs flew both real-world UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook helicopters for the training missions, as well as virtual flights in Aviation Combined Arms Tactical Trainer (AVCATT) simulators.
“We saw quantifiable growth from the start of the exercise each day until the end,” said Lt. Col. Tyler Smentek, commander of 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment (General Support Aviation Battalion). “We exercised deliberate and rapid planning processes that allowed our subordinate units to provide aviation combat power to the Joint Task Force commander. We walked away from the CTE with processes and products that will enable our geographically dispersed Task Force to succeed in the CENTCOM AOR (Area of Operations).”
“The team did great,” Gronewold said of the exercise. “Everyone worked hard. Everyone stayed focused. Everyone stayed motivated and I couldn’t be happier with how the team performed.”
Task Force Phoenix is composed of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 40th Combat Aviation Brigade; 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation Regiment (GSAB); and the 640th Aviation Support Battalion. In all, the Task Force includes Army National Guard units from nine states. An active-duty U.S. Army AH-64 Apache attack helicopter battalion will join the Task Force once in theater.
Task Force Phoenix will replace Task Force Anvil, led by the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 28th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade, which has been in theater for the past nine months.