By Col. William Bladen Operations Group Commander, 104th Fighter Wing
/ Published September 09, 2016
BARNES AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Mass. --
The 104th Fighter Wing is small. It's lean. It's efficient. It's a tight-knit family. And this spring, it had a huge impact on national security. It was amazing for me to see how our little base projected global power and gave our national leadership just a little more political capital. The entire wing should be proud of how all of our functions came together to pull it off. It was a team effort that touched every shop on the base. You should be proud. You deserve it. But I think you deserve more accolades than many of you have imagined. Allow me to brag on you for a few minutes.
A Tad Bit of History
American foreign policy during the Cold War era almost exclusively focused on stemming the expansion of Communism. Massive amounts of money, troops, and equipment flowed into Europe to bolster NATO power vis-à-vis the Warsaw Pact. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the U.S. sought a "peace dividend" to save money. This meant cutting troop strengths by 75% during the following decade. It saved a ton of tax dollars but it had some unintended consequences. Our allies felt abandoned and our potential adversaries became emboldened. Fast forward 27 years. We've seen Russia attack Georgia and annex Crimea. ISIS operates throughout Europe and intends to project terror here. We needed to show solidarity with Europe, especially Eastern Europe, which bridges the West with Russia and the Middle East. Hence the birth of the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) and the Theater Security Package (TSP). This new strategy rotates forces through various locations (instead of permanent basing) and seeks to do four important things: REASSURE our allies, DETER our potential adversaries, gain INTEROPERABILITY with NATO, and practice FORWARD BASING. Enter stage left....the Barnestormers.
Our portion of the TSP was a three month deployment to four different locations "rainbowing" jets with Fresno. We sent 250 people, 12 jets (eight from Barnes), and operated out of three locations simultaneously. We split the unit into a Northern Route (Iceland to Estonia to Bulgaria), a Southern Route (Holland to Bulgaria), and still ran our alert and DOMOPS missions back home. Those stats alone are pretty amazing...now let's talk impact.
The Northern Route
Our trip to Iceland was all about DETERRENCE. As a part of NATO, we have agreed to periodically rotate forces through the country to unpredictably deter and protect the northern Atlantic corridor -- the route Russian bombers fly to harass our eastern seaboard. During our visit, we fell under NATO command and control, not U.S., and were tasked to sit alert. Part of the mission was to prove the capability by passing a series of four alert evaluations before going on status. We did it in just three and the evaluators stated, "It was the fastest scramble times we have seen." Their shock was not shared by me. I already knew we were the best.
From Iceland, we moved the four jets and about 80 people to Estonia. There, we hit all four of the ERI objectives: REASSURANCE, DETERRENCE, INTEROPERABILITY, and BASING. Our jets were just 120 miles from the Estonian-Russian border, about the same distance we fly to train during sorties here at Barnes. We let Russia know we were thinking about them by parking American fighters on their doorstep. Estonia is western leaning but they worry about Russian power and American backing -- to understand their fear, you only have to ask the Ukraine about the Crimea. We also participated in their Spring Storm exercise to enable training together. Estonia is small but very strategic and we definitely contributed to keeping them on our side of the world view. From there, the northern route crowd moved to Bulgaria and joined the southern route. The family was back together again.
The Southern Route
As our jets and people left for the norther route, simultaneously the other half of the TSP went to Holland where our focus was INTEROPERABILITY. For three weeks we participated in Frisian Flag, a Dutch exercise that simulates major combat operations similar to Red Flag. We planned, briefed, flew, and debriefed with 10 NATO and Partnership for Peace nations. Fighting alongside foreign nations is extraordinarily difficult. Our airplanes are different, we speak a different language, and our tactics are different. Multiply those differences by 10 and that was Frisian Flag. We taught them how we fight and win and they showed us the capabilities they bring to the fight. It was an overwhelming success and I am confident every participant is more prepared to fight when the next big war comes.
From Holland, we took the jets to our final destination, Bulgaria, with the northern route joining us a few weeks later. Bulgaria was about REASSURANCE, DETERRENCE, and BASING. Bulgaria is exceptionally strategic. It is a former Warsaw Pact turned NATO nation that flies Soviet fighters and has a population that both embraces western values and appreciates Russian support. They border the Black Sea and are a short flight to the Middle East. Our visit to Bulgaria was really focused on keeping them vested in NATO by training with their pilots, engaging their government, and engaging their people. We flew a huge number of sorties with their pilots, gave them weekly academics, and even met with their Chief of the Ministry of Defense (a position that is similar to our SECDEF) to discuss the meshing of Bulgarian and American strategy. This was done by Barnestormers, not highly trained Department of State officials. In addition, we offered up firefighting capability during a fire off base and contributed hundreds of man hours to completely overhaul a destitute kindergarten playground. When we left, we received huge compliments from their wing commander, Gen. Lalov. He was very happy with how we had entered as guests and left as friends. The impact of this cannot be overstated. Key players in the Bulgarian military and community saw us as an example of what America offers.
It's hard to measure. It's not tangible. But it is important.
As an 18 primary aircraft assigned wing, we operated out of three locations simultaneously, the first to do this during a TSP. This split our pilots, maintenance, and support functions three ways...something unheard of on active duty. We also supported three different combatant commands simultaneously...also unheard of on active duty. Typical fighter unit deployments go to an established base like Al Dafra or Bagram with an American chain of command, an American infrastructure, and American force protection initiatives. None of our four locations had that. We had to make our own policies, work our own communications, and we even built a dining hall that purchased goods on the economy and fed the entire 131st Expeditionary Fighter Squadron.
A key indicator of our impact was actually the Russians because they moved forces to counter our movements. The day our jets arrived in Bulgaria, the MiG pilots scrambled four times because the Russian Air Force was probing the border. Prior to our arrival, the Bulgarians hadn't scrambled in over two months. The shirtless man on the horse was reacting to us. And when he's reacting, we're winning. It wasn't easy and it was awesome to watch. For that I sure am proud. And you should be too. Most Americans will never understand what you did this spring. But I do...and I thank you.