April 22, 2007 (by SSgt A.C. Eggman) - Shifting focus and learning a new mission seems to be the preparation theme for the Panthers of the 13th Fighter Squadron as they prepare to replace the 14th Fighter Squadron in Iraq.
The 13th FS is making final preparations for their AEF deployment to Iraq this summer. The squadron will replace the 14th FS currently conducting combat operations in Iraq.
"Historically, the Wild Weasel mission has been to find and destroy enemy air defenses," said Capt. Larry Sullivan, 13th Fighter Squadron pilot, of the fighter wing's mission. "Now we're training to support the Soldiers and Marines on the ground in Iraq - just as the 14th Fighter Squadron is currently doing."
The 13th FS
has added the Close-Air-Support (CAS
) mission to their primary job of flying Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD).
This shift in focus is a challenge for the pilots, but a challenge they're prepared to face, said the captain.
Other Air Force units with A-10 Warthogs and block 40
F-16 Fighting Falcons have been supporting the air-to-ground mission in Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the Global War on Terrorism. However, with the large number of rotations in and out of the AOR, the 35FW has been tasked to learn and fly CAS missions with their Block-50 F-16s.
"In addition to providing SEAD capability here in the Pacific region, we've had to become experts on the CAS missions in Iraq."
During the 35th Fighter Wing Operational Readiness Inspection in March, the squadron was simultaneously tested on their SEAD mission, as well as the new mission - CAS. "That is a unique tasking for a single squadron to have, and we proved we're fully capable," said the captain.
Shifting gears wasn't easy though, said Captain Sullivan. The squadron put in a lot of hours to meet objectives and mission requirements for their job in the Pacific, while balancing the new mission they'll be doing in Iraq.
"We've been training for what we're going to be doing in the AOR since the first of the year," said 1st Lt. Chris Morton, 13th Fighter Squadron pilot.
An example of the change for the Panthers has been the use of the 20 millimeter gatling gun on the F-16. "Before this AEF
tasking, we trained to use the gun primarily in an air-to-air role," Capt Sullivan said. "We have shifted our focus away from a dogfight with an enemy aircraft to using the gun to attack targets on the ground."
Using the gun allows the pilots in the 13th reduce the collateral damage to the surrounding area.
"We want to hit our targets, but do as little additional damage as possible, and the 20 millimeter is perfectly suited for that."
They have also been training with targeting pods preparing for a variety of combat scenarios. Targeting pods allow the pilots to see detailed images of the ground, day or night, and to employ laser guided bombs and GPS
"The targeting pods offer us an outstanding capability," said Captain Sullivan. "They allow us to have a clear image of the ground while flying at a higher altitude, which helps us deliver precise ordnance and avoid the threats present at lower altitudes."
Communicating with 14th Fighter Squadron almost daily has helped the 13th FS adjust their tactics and modify their training to meet the demands they'll face in Iraq.
"The Samurai trained for this mission in a similar way, but we've taken the lessons they have learned in combat and integrated them into our preparation in order to make it as effective as possible," said Captain Sullivan. "Maintaining a simultaneous capability to provide SEAD and CAS support means that we have to take advantage of every training opportunity."
Sharing after-action reports and reviewing cockpit videos and intelligence briefings has allowed the squadron to become familiar with the terrain in Iraq, unique terminology and the pace of the war which is vital to mission success.
"These aren't pretend scenarios we've developed," he said. "We're flying the real thing - it's a huge advantage."
Some scenarios the pilots have been practicing include providing aerial convoy escort, non-traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, providing ground forces with top cover, and searching for ambushes and snipers, said Lieutenant Morton.
They formulate the ground war scenarios based on intelligence reports from Iraq and then put their skills to the test.
"Using the air space over Misawa, we can practice tracking and escorting vehicles in simulated convoys as they drive around the base." said Captain Sullivan. "This training resembles our mission in Iraq where we will be flying in direct support of the army and marine units in convoys.
Since the "Panther Pack" of the 13th FS will have Joint Tactical Air Controllers on the ground while deployed in Iraq controlling the air strikes, they've had Soldiers from Wheeler Army Airfield, Hawaii, and Airmen from Camp Casey, South Korea
, travel to Misawa to train with the pilots. The constant communication with friendly forces on the ground is unique to the CAS mission and something new for the Panthers.
But when the JTACs aren't in town, the squadron has had to be creative with ways to practice the CAS mission.
"We call it 'armchair' training," said Lieutenant Morton of the squadron's unique way to train without actual JTACs.
"Armchair" missions employ a pilot on the ground who uses aerial photos on a computer and a radio to communicate with aircraft flying over northern Japan and Hokkaido Island.
"We simulate being a JTAC
on the ground, pointing out the targets and places of interest we want the pilots to cover with their targeting pods," said the lieutenant. "It also forces us to use JTAC terminology, and it's been good training to see the mission from both sides. I think training on the ground by filling the role of a JTAC will make us better pilots when airborne."
After months in the desert, the pilots in the 14th have become experts at this new mission, and the 13th will be expected to hit the ground running on their first combat sortie.
We're fully prepared to meet the expectations of higher command and pick up where the Samurai left off, said Captain Sullivan.
"The pilots of the 13th Fighter Squadron are an extremely sharp, combat capable force to be reckoned with," said Captain Sullivan. "Right now the Air Force has almost 30,000 Airmen deployed worldwide and we're proud to join them to do our part in support of the Global War on Terrorism. We're ready and excited to get the job done in the AOR."