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Road to Combat: Part III

F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 134th Fighter Squadron, Vermont Air National Guard, are buttoned up for the night after flying training missions during Red Flag 21-3.

F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 134th Fighter Squadron, Vermont Air National Guard, are buttoned up for the night after flying training missions during Red Flag 21-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, July 28, 2021. Red Flag was created to increase interoperability, leveraging common perspectives against shared threats. (U.S. Air National Guard photo illustration by Tech. Sgt. Ryan Campbell)(This image was created by blending a series of multiple exposures.)

Vermont Air National Guard --

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt., (Dec. 17, 2021) – New Years 2022 will be welcomed with the 158th Fighter Wing of the Vermont Air National Guard exiting a three year conversion process to be a fully operational F-35A Lightning II wing.

2021 wouldn’t come to an end however, before embarking on their largest training exercise yet with the F-35. An exercise that would test their ability to move people, equipment and aircraft across the country for the most immersive training yet with their fifth generation fighters.

“This is not just a week of preparation but it’s months,” said 1st Lt. Young Kwon, the installation deployment officer for the 158th Fighter Wing, about the effort to organize such a movement.

KC-135 Stratotankers and C-130 Hercules’ from across the Air National Guard came to the Vermont Air National Guard Base to airlift more than 200 Airmen and required cargo to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, for exercise Red Flag 21-3.

“You could go about six months, even more, for preparing to get all these aircraft, a total of six that we have to arrange for them to come here,” said Kwon.

The Airmen spent three weeks of July 2021 at Nellis participating in Red Flag, an exercise that has been around for 46 years, to tactically train fighter pilots.

While often an international exercise, this iteration was U.S. only but was still vast with the active duty Air Force, Air Force Reserves, Air National Guard, Navy, Marine Corps and Space Force all participating.

“When you can bring joint units along with the Air Force in an environment like this, it’s no longer part-task training,” said Lt. Col. Tyler Stef, the commander of Red Flag 21-3.

“It is full integration...we will better know and understand their service culture. Red Flag is the opportunity people get to come and start to build those relationships that will ultimately last a career,” he continued.

The exercise involved the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-22 Raptor, F-35A Lightning II, HC-130J Combat King II, HH-60G Pave Hawk, B-52H Stratofortress, B-2A Lancer, F/A-18 Hornet, EA-18G Growler, E-3G Sentry, E-8C Joint Stars, RC-135V Rivet Joint, RQ-4B Global Hawk, EC-130H Compass Call, KC-135 Stratotanker and the KC-46 Pegasus.

With each aircraft platform having a role to focus their missions on, the Green Mountain Boys focused their F-35s on air-to-ground tactics.

“With the F-16 we were primarily counter-land fighters, our mission now has changed to counter-air, specifically counter-offensive air,” said Lt. Col. Rocky McRae, the commander of the 134th Fighter Squadron. “This Red Flag, our main mission is focused on suppression of enemy air defenses.”

This mission of suppressing enemy air defenses, which is commonly known as “SEAD” or “wild weasel,” has the Green Mountain Boys training to engage ground targets and eliminate the threat enemy threats from the ground.

McRae explained that with lessons learned after the Vietnam War, the more training sorties pilots can do before going into combat, the greater their survivability. These training sorties are against what is referred to as “near peer adversaries” which McRae said is aircraft with similar capabilities to current U.S. aircraft.

“Aggressor” aircraft took to the skies to engage the Vermont F-35s, along with simulated surface to air missile sites that they set out to neutralize.

McRae also explained that they are training on offensive counter attack and offensive counter escort, escorting the B-52 and B-2 bombers to enemy targets.

“We’re about to come out of conversion, this training is really our capstone,” said McRae. “We’re going to prove to ACC [Air Combat Command] that we’re ready, we’re coming back to ACC as a premier fifth gen F-35 squadron.”

Headquartered at Joint Base Langley-Eustis in Virginia, Air Combat Command is the major command that oversees the majority of the U.S. Air Force’s combat air forces.

Once out of conversion, the 158th Fighter Wing will again be another asset ACC has to employ air power anywhere around the world when needed, particularly in a joint environment.

“The importance of joint training is how do we all communicate the same way,” said MacRae. “As Air Force, we're comfortable talking Air Force language. But we have Army teams out here with us, we have Navy teams and Marine Corps teams out here. And it's particular that we are able to train to the same level and speak the same language.”

This was accomplished through two training missions a day, launching upwards of 10 aircraft in the morning and in the evening, all with temperatures in the Nevada desert well into the triple digits.

MacRae called the maintenance team phenomenal in how they have been up to the task and provided the fighter squadron with everything they needed and said, “we know that they’re ready to support us in combat.”

“The chaos, the stress of the day to day routine here at Red Flag, it's been so exciting, so rewarding, so stressful,” said Senior Airman Isabel Murphy, a crew chief assigned to the 158th Maintenance Group.

“I've always loved jets, I've always loved aircraft and I wanted to do something that was bigger than myself,” she continued. “The first time I toured the Vermont Air National Guard, I knew it in my heart that I wanted to be here. I wanted to serve my community, my country and that's why I did it, to serve something a lot bigger than myself.”

Nearly three years since the 158th Fighter Wing held “Viper Out” which said farewell to their F-16s, the end of 2021 allowed for a moment of reflection on how much has changed.

“It doesn’t seem that long ago...but that time has gone by fast,” said Col. David Shevchik, Jr., commander of the 158th. “When you look back and look at all the team has accomplished, it’s very impressive.”

After 33 years of flying the F-16, the last four left Vermont in April of 2019. This was in the midst of many wing members being away for extended active duty tours to learn their new aircraft, as well as many of the buildings on base requiring extensive renovating to accommodate the F-35 at the first National Guard base to be selected for it.

“I don’t think the team was surprised, I think they were proud of the decision that was made and appreciative to be considered,” said Shevchik. “To look back on it and see it all come to fruition and live through it and talk about it, it’s surreal in a way.”

The wing had more than conversion to deal with, however. Federal missions kept coming and as a National Guard unit, duties to the state continued.

“That’s what I think is most impressive in the middle of a conversion,” said Shevchik. “We’ve simultaneously been deploying 75 members to three [areas of responsibility], been serving in multiple state missions now for nearly two years and going through a conversion for a federal mission.”

At the end of 2021, Airmen are still on duty responding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, more overseas deployments are scheduled and training flights are back to the level they were with the F-16. Beginning in 2022, the 158th Fighter Wing will be the first operational F-35 wing in the National Guard.

“Part of being first is you’re paving the way, you’re going to get some cuts and bruises, some scratches along the way,” said Shevchik. “But you can’t be fearful of it, you got to take that and just run with it and pave the way for others.”

The Alabama and Wisconsin National Guards are the next ones slated to get the F-35, but as those two states also begin saying goodbye to their old aircraft, they are still a couple of years out from welcoming their first F-35s.

“I think reflecting back is important, that’s when everyone can realize, ‘hey we just did this’,” said Shevchik.

Shevchik said it is a huge responsibility to take care of the Airmen and civilians of the 158th Fighter Wing, noting the “small state, big impact” of the Vermont Air National Guard and praised everyone’s ability to keep the wing on track over the last three years.

“We just celebrated our 75th anniversary this past year and you look at those 75 years that we’ve been here, that speaks for itself,” said Shevchik. “When I look back and reflect on this year and the past 75 years, I can say and feel with the utmost confidence that we’ll be here for another 75.”