618th AOC supports largest NATO exercise in 20 years

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Christopher Reel
  • 1st Combat Camera Squadron
Multiple 18th Air Force units worked together to perform a personnel drop of more than 500 82nd Airborne Division Paratroopers in support of Exercise Ultimate Reach, Nov. 2 - 7, a subsection of NATO's largest exercise in 20 years, Exercise Trident Juncture.

Ultimate Reach is an annual U.S. Transportation Command-sponsored live-fly exercise designed to evaluate 18th Air Force's transportation units' ability to plan and conduct strategic airdrop missions.

This year's Ultimate Reach consisted of a fleet of seven C-17 Globemaster III aircraft and eight KC-10 Extenders to move the airborne division members to a drop zone in Zaragoza, Spain.

The C-17s from Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, took off from Pope Army Airfield, North Carolina, Nov. 3, and flew through the night to Zaragoza, Spain. Once over the drop zone, the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team conducted a Joint Forcible Entry exercise in front an international audience of military leadership, dignitaries and media.

The exercise demonstrates 18th Air Force's ability to move forces and equipment anywhere on earth in a matter of hours, which is instrumental to the collective defense of NATO and other partner nations.

"As with TRANSCOM, Air Mobility Command and the United States, we have a responsibility to NATO and to use this exercise as an opportunity to train with our NATO allies," said Capt. Chris Mahan, C-17 aircraft commander. "Missions like this create that interoperability with our allies and sister services."

In order to make the trip without stopping, KC-10 Extender tankers from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, and Travis Air Force Base, California, refueled the C-17s on the way to Europe and on their return trip.

"Without us, other aircraft with less fuel capacity will have to land and refuel more often," said Airman 1st Class Amy James, 32nd Air Refueling Squadron boom operator. "We enable worldwide missions to be completed more efficiently."

Eight tankers met with the C-17s over the North Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night. Maj. Mitch Ehresman, 305th Air Mobility Wing current operations flight chief, said this capability allows them to support combatant commanders throughout the world by helping get the assets they need into theater as quickly as possible.

"It all comes down to time and range," he said. "Without our fuel supply, C-17s couldn't go directly to Spain and fighters would have much more limited time dropping ordnance downrange before landing to refuel."

America's Global Response Force provides combatant commanders with critical options to respond to international crises, but cannot do so without trained and validated support from its joint Air Force partners. This exercise is another example of this constant training.

"We provide and posture rapid mobility forces for things like this global response force and move the Army anywhere in the world at any time," Mahan said. "Training like this is extremely important. For us to provide a direct-delivery sortie halfway around the globe without stopping is quite impressive. It's something we don't get to exercise very often, but days like this we can not only do that but succeed in doing it."

The overall mission was coordinated from Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, at the 618th Air Operations Center.  The 618th AOC is 18th AF's execution arm, providing the Air Force's global reach. It plans, schedules, directs and assesses a fleet of nearly 1,100 mobility aircraft in support of combat delivery and strategic airlift, air refueling and aeromedical evacuation operations around the world.

For Ultimate Reach, the 618th AOC acted as the command and control authority for the C-17s and KC-10s. The AOC coordinated with the operations centers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst and communicated mission changes with the aircraft formations via secure satellite links.  Additional coordination was required with the 603rd Air Operations Center's Air Mobility Division in Germany and the NATO Combined Air Operation Center Torrejon in Madrid, Spain.

"There's a lot of effort that goes into coordinating all the details needed to make missions like these successful," said Maj. Nate Padgett, the lead exercise liaison for the AOC. "For major exercises, a big piece of the planning process is to ensure the seams between the operators and command element are tied-up. Key components, that don't come up in stateside missions, are things like obtaining diplomatic clearances, ensuring there's enough, and the right type of, ground support at the final destination, and solving how to communicate securely with aircraft while they're over the ocean. Any one of these seemingly small considerations could derail the entire mission, and we handle all of them."

NATO's Trident Juncture and 18th Air Force's Ultimate Reach demonstrates NATO allies' interoperability and global response. The 2016 NATO Response Force certification exercise consists of more than 36,000 troops from more than 35 NATO allied nations.

"In addition to Air Mobility Command, Pacific Command also assisted in this global reach," said Captain Dan Naske, Ultimate Reach lead Air Force planner. "Ultimate Reach truly is a great opportunity to showcase our ability to have global reach across the world and show NATO that we are there to support them."

18th Air Force is responsible for carrying out Air Mobility Command's operational air mobility mission. Since 9/11, AMC and 18th Air Force, with a mission to deliver hope, fuel and the fight and save lives, have moved more than 22.7 million passengers, 2.7 billion gallons of fuel and 229,000 patients.