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Wild Weasels battle through Iron Spear

September 12, 2013 (by SrA Derek VanHorn) - U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons used an array of offensive firepower during a two-week exercise with the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force that wrapped up Sept. 6

USAF F-16C block 50 #92-3891 from the 13th FS takes off during an exercise at Misawa AB on September 5th, 2013. Misawa pilots exercised with the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force during Iron Spear 13-2, which is a biannual training exercise that tests the 35 FW’s mission of the suppression of enemy air defenses. [USAF photo by A1C. Kaleb Snay]

The exercise -- Iron Spear 13-2 - was the second go of a biannual engagement that allowed the host nation to test their surface-to-air missile capabilities against the aerial prowess of Misawa's F-16s in dozens of simulated combat scenarios.

The JGSDF stepped in to provide the most real-life warfare training available to Wild Weasels. The mission of the 35th Fighter Wing is the suppression of enemy air defenses, namely the destruction of enemy SAM sites, which is precisely what Iron Spear allowed. Misawa pilots executed more than 300 flying hours over 14 days while locating and chasing down enemy targets.

Capt. Bryan Zumbro, 14th Fighter Squadron F-16 pilot, said Iron Spear was crucial for more than just being able to train against actual SAM sites, but also because of the ground self-defense force running them.

"The most profound significance is fighting against an actual SAM operator," Zumbro said. "The JGSDF operators are professional, active duty soldiers operating in a real environment. We very rarely get to dodge simulated missiles fired by operators as we work our way into the target area while finding operational SAM sites in our targeting pods."

Zumbro said the view from the jet's pod - albeit at 30 thousand feet -- is as authentic as a battlefield can be. It's replete with rotating early warning and missile guidance radars, command and control vehicles, missile transporters and launchers, and ground personnel simultaneously in action.

Capt. Ryan Worrell, 35th Operations Support Squadron weapons and tactics flight commander, said pilots mainly drop joint direct attack munitions - GPS guided bombs known as JDAMs - during SAM training, but that this time around both parties raised the bar with closer battle exchange.

"After dropping JDAMS, we transitioned to high-angle strafes using our 20mm guns," Worrell said. "We roll in to attack our target from six to eight thousand feet. A lot of times the enemy is able to visually acquire us as we attack each other."

All of this takes place on what Zumbro called the most intense roller-coaster imaginable at supersonic speeds while employing maneuvers resulting in G-forces more than five times that of gravity.

Zumbro said they'll open fire at slightly less than a mile, employing more than 100 high-explosive rounds per second on each SAM site. All the while, operators on the ground do everything in their power to train surviving air defense equipment in the direction of the incoming threat in defense of their lives.

"It's intense," he said. "It affords the enemy the opportunity to rethink whatever reason they've given us to be there."

The replicated enemy - in this case, JGSDF operators huddled within missile sites scattered across Okushiri Island - fired back at the jets using an advanced, layered enemy integrated air defense system with more than one SAM site engaged at a time, including the use of a highly advanced version called the Chu-SAM which has only been around for about 10 years.

Capt. Dennis Muller, 13th Fighter Squadron pilot, said they faced some of the most highly competent, well-trained operators in the world.

"This exercise tested the reliability and viability of the F-16s and the systems on them, as well as it tested the pilots and tactic against that type of threat," Muller said. "Through this exercise, the pilots and maintainers become better at their jobs and are much more capable of achieving the objective of destroying and killing their enemy."

An important piece implemented during the exercise was the use of Sabre - the ground control intercept agency that relayed real time kill outcomes for the more than 200 sorties flown during Iron Spear.

"The agency is on the radio observing radar that's shows everything," Worrell said. "That was a very strong point of this exercise. If we strafed something or dropped a bomb, we would call 'kill', pass it through Sabre and the JGSDF would turn it off. This worked vice versa as well; if they shot us, Sabre would radio through and tell us to head south out of the fight."

Another caveat that made the exercise nearly identical to a real-world operation was the decision to conduct sorties through the day and night, challenging pilots not only with adjusted light settings but also requiring the use of night vision goggles. It was the first time night flying was executed during an Iron Spear exercise.

Zumbro compared the view within the NVGs as holding two tubes in front of each eyeball in the black of night and driving at express speeds in the heart of rush hour traffic in Los Angeles, keeping in mind you are only able to see directly where you turn your entire head while being fully responsible for the vehicle's settings.

"Now take that same traffic and make it hostile," Zumbro said. "That's what it's like fighting SAMs at night."

"The big difference at night time is obviously visibility," Worrell said. "It's more complicated for us to maintain awareness within our flights while fighting against ground forces, but it's a fundamental aspect of the USAF that we're absolutely capable at night."

Some may be under the impression these exercises are thoroughly scripted, but many of the tactics employed are purely improvised as pilots react accordingly to - for all intents and purposes - a real life enemy threat.

"Split-second decisions are made on which part of the SAM system to attack based on what is required to render the sites useless," said Zumbro.

"We make a tactical decision to either defeat the missile or if we know how far it is, maybe we don't have to because we know its limitations. This is as real as it gets without someone actually blowing up, which is why it's been awesome training," Worrell added.

Muller said each sortie lasts between one and two hours in length, and before each sortie, there is a mass pre-brief that goes over the rules both sides will be fighting by that day. Following every sortie is a debrief, which Worrell called the most important part of the process.

A well known stumbling block with bilateral interaction is bringing into play the use of two languages. This barrier has sometimes left questions unanswered in regards to the "why" and "how" some actions were taken during fast-paced combat action. Pilots overcame this dilemma with the implementation of online web camera de-briefs with JGSDF members.

Worrell said they were able to do full playbacks of sorties thanks to tracking pods on the jets, where they discussed every missile and SAM shot and summarized what was learned on each end. This asset took away the lingering questions and reasoning that were left ambiguous in previous exercises.

Worrell said members of the JGSDF expressed their thanks for being a part of Iron Spear, emphasizing the benefits of low altitude and diverse training.

"The country of Japan is our host and we have a tremendous amount that we can learn from each other both culturally and professionally," Zumbro said. "The result of these opportunities is a realistic environment for us to practice, evaluate and adapt our tactics while simultaneously exposing a close friend and great ally to the world's foremost professionals at disassembling surface to air defenses, the 35th Fighter Wing's Wild Weasels."

Courtesy of 35th Fighter Wing Public Affairs