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US and Greek Air Forces train together at Souda Bay, Greece

August 20, 2014 (by Lieven Dewitte) - Nearly 20 U.S. Air Force F-16s from the 480th Fighter Squadron at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, are deployed to Souda Bay, Greece, for bilateral training with the Hellenic Air Force Aug. 11-23, 2014.

A USAF F-16 pilot from the 480th FS at Spangdahlem AB taxis to the flightline on August 8th, 2014 to leave for a training event with the Hellenic air force in Souda Bay, Greece from August 11th till 23rd. Nearly 20 aircraft left Spangdahlem in support of the training, which aims to enhance the capabilities of both air forces. [USAF photo]

The large-force training events gauges the compatibility between the two nations with a focus on strengthening joint readiness.

Souda Bay is located on the island of Crete southeast of Athens. One of the station's primary functions is to support airborne operations in this strategically critical area of the world. The Hellenic Air Force's 115th Combat Wing pilots train with their U.S. counterparts over there to enhance their capabilities with different flying roles: air-to-air combat, suppression of enemy air defense, air interdiction, counter-air and close air support.

This training is made possible through the efforts of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, the command which governs all U.S. air assets in Europe with the duty to train, equip and deploy combat-ready Airmen. Their posture is to continuously hone skills during peacetime, poise to address any security threats, and ensure regional peace and stability.

"Working with our NATO partners now allows us to train with these guys in a training environment," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Taylor Blevins, 480th FS chief of weapons and tactics. "So the next time we're working with them -- potentially in a combat environment -- we've already worked with them, already kind of seen their act and know what to expect. It makes us more ready for the battlefield, which obviously helps our combatant commanders and makes us more lethal as an overall fighting force.

U.S. and Greek mission planners have been creating scenarios for the training deployment. They work hours every day to plan and coordinate all the training objectives for the following day's training. They create in-depth scenarios that include a specific mission -- bomb this target, escort this aircraft through hostile air -- and then plot how the enemies will respond. The teams are assigned with the blue team as the good guys, the red team as the bad.

The planners create what is called an air tasking order, or ATO, for the blue team. This is simulated to have come from senior military leaders calling the pilots to execute a mission.

In this bilateral training, the 480th FS is partnering with the Hellenic air force 115th Combat Wing's 340th and 343rd Fighter Squadrons. The joint environment allows each squadron to bring something new to the fight.

One of the 480th FS's primary roles is the suppression of enemy air defenses, or SEAD, Cochlin said. The pilots specialize in flying first into combat to neutralize enemy threats to allow a striker time to finish its mission.

"Striker" is a generalized term used to indicate the airframe assigned the primary task of the mission. For air-to-surface missions, the striker, in this case, is a Hellenic air force group of F-16s equipped to drop bombs.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Dustin Cochlin said the pilots of the 480th embrace the unique role of SEAD. In fact, the 480th's motto is "First In, Last Out" and explains the trust the pilots need in each other to complete their missions without leaving an Airman behind.

"Everybody is synched up," the pilot said about how each person in an F-16 four-ship formation has a specific duty. "From the very beginning, we're taught to build trust in our fellow pilots through a very strict adherence to roles and responsibilities of the four-ship. We're not just some random gang of motorcycle riders in the air."

Each pilot is trained to perform each mission of the formation, so that it's all interchangeable. The U.S. Air Force uses this technique to ensure all pilots across the service can seamlessly integrate at any time.

"We may still make execution errors, but that's how we learn," Cochlin said. "We'll never get better if we don't test our abilities in an environment outside of our comfort zone."

Once the ATO has been executed, the pilots return to the base and review the shot evaluation of each aircraft. This is a real-time playback of everything that happened, which allows the pilots to see the accuracy of their assault. They gather the pertinent data and meet with the Greek pilots during a debriefing period to compile everything into an overall assessment.

Using that assessment as a guide, the mission planners create a "lessons learned" document that explains the strengths and weaknesses of each flying mission.

"The big overall picture is that we take all the little pieces we learned and use them to better and more efficiently execute the mission in the future," Cochlin said.

This week the bilateral training focuses on more large-force employments.

Fighter pilots normally fly together in what is called a four-ship formation -- four pilots with assigned roles and duties who protect each other. During this week's LFE, multiple groups of four-ships, both Greek and US, must partner to execute a mission or overcome a simulated threat.

The significance of such training has been stressed by the senior leadership of both countries' participating Airmen.

"As a fighter pilot myself, I am keenly aware of the importance of these kinds of exercises," said Hellenic air force Col. Ioannis Gerolimos, 115th Combat Wing commander. "My aim is to make sure that the 115th CW is ready to deal with any operational situation in any environment. Also, this training exercise -- with the participation of the 480th (Fighter Squadron) -- gives us both the essential means in maintaining and enhancing the ability of our involving personnel to work together, which will be increasingly important to meet future challenges as allied air forces."

Flexible airpower derives from the ability to successfully plan, integrate, and provide command and control for a large number of tactical air assets, and each NATO partner nation may achieve their desired combat potential through rigorous peacetime training.

"It is my strong belief that this training experience will further strengthen the existing bonds between Greece and the U.S. and increase our NATO military capability," said HAF Col. K. Zolotas, 115th Combat Wing operations and training director. "We both need this training experience because, as NATO allies, our countries could be called upon at any time to project combat air power."

But when creating joint air power, there are always some hurdles, said U.S. Air Force Capt. Brian Wagner, 480th FS project officer for this training.

"The difficulties and benefits are two very similar things," he said. "Throughout NATO, everyone has their own background, their own story, their own cultural perspectives. When you bring all those together to accomplish one single goal, sometimes you approach a problem from a different angle. Sometimes that can lead to miscommunications, which is part of the difficulties.

"But it allows us to really use our diversity as a strength," he said about how sharing ideas and theories can sometimes lead to the best solution. "So that's how that difficulty becomes a strength through NATO."

And with NATO currently consisting of 28 independent member countries, there are many possible means to solve a problem. Every partner nation is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes, but if diplomatic efforts fail, these countries' military services may need to act quickly to safeguard regional peace and stability.

"The purpose and importance of doing joint training is paramount," Wagner explained. "If you look at the shrinking defense budgets across the world, everyone has been smaller, leaner, smarter in the last few years. So we really rely on each other for any sort of combat operations that are going to happen. In order to be prepared for that ... we need to be able to have the experience to draw upon of how to work together with different counties and how to integrate as NATO."

Gerolimos said he hopes for a continued U.S. and Greek close partnership with the expectation that the training is not just a one-time event. Rather, he said he views it as a stepping stone to sustaining readiness and being fully prepared to meet tomorrow's threats.

Courtesy of Staff Sgt. Daryl Knee 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Additional images:

USAF F-16s sit on the flightline on August 18th, 2014 at Souda Bay, Greece, during a training event between the U.S. and Hellenic air forces. The swing-shift maintenance crews are preparing some of the aircraft for an early-morning takeoff for the U.S. and Greek pilots to train together. [USAF photo by SSgt. Daryl Knee]

USAF Capt. Taylor Blevins, an F-16 pilot from the 480th FS at Spangdahlem AB, waits for clearance before leaving a hardened aircraft shelter pad on August 8th, 2014 before his flight to a training event in Souda Bay, Greece. [USAF photo]

USAF Capt. Taylor Blevins, an F-16 pilot from the 480th FS at Spangdahlem AB, walks toward his jet in a hardened aircraft shelter on Augyst 8th, 2014 before leaving for a training event in Souda Bay, Greece. Nearly 20 aircraft from Spangdahlem are participating in this training event, which aims to maintain regional peace and stability throughout Europe. [USAF photo]