Gulfport, MS --
Southern Strike 2021 is officially in the books, marking the Mississippi National Guard's tenth year to host the real world military training exercise. Exercise Southern Strike displays counter insurgency, close air support, non-combatant evacuation, and maritime special operations.
With approximately 1,800 service members from active, guard and reserve components of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines along with four foreign countries taking part in this elite combat training exercise. Participants tested their skills and team’s ability to conduct major military operations, crisis response and security cooperation operations.
Three members of the 132d Wing made the trip down to the Gulfport Combat Readiness Training Center (CRTC), Gulfport, Miss., where they took part in the exercise. The members, a pilot, sensor operator and intel analysis played an integral part in the exercise. Their jobs all function around the operation of the MQ-9 Reaper RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft), but here they have to coordinate with the other air assets and the ground forces. For this particular event, they were joined by nine other Air National Guard units that operate and utilize the assets that the MQ-9 possesses. Beyond the members on station, nearly another 90 back in Des Moines at the 132d Wing took part in planning and coordinating ahead of the exercise, while operating during it.
For Capt. Justin an RPA pilot for MQ-9s and the Chief of Combat Plans in the 124th Attack Squadron, Iowa ANG, the Southern Strike exercise allowed him to take on the role as lead RPA Liaison (LNO).
Participating in Southern Strike showed the big picture perspective of the MQ-9s and 124th ATKS’s ability to spin up and operate as if deployed. “The intent is we pickup, drop down somewhere and now all of a sudden we are generating MQ-9 sorties and being able to support ground units that are here, as well as integrate into the overall scheme in movement for the Air Forces and what that needs to look like,” Justin said.
During the exercise, Justin dropped two 500lb GBU-12 inert (missing the main explosive component and filled with concrete) bombs at the Camp Shelby Range. He also instructed and watched over the shoulder for the North Dakota 119th Wing Commander Col. Mitch Johnson’s two GBU-12 drops on the Camp Shelby range.
Justin did plenty of planning in the months leading up to the event and once on site in Gulfport his workload only increased. There Justin led a team of seven members, attending nightly meetings to coordinate how the MQ-9’s fit into the flying schedule with the air and ground assets, and covered the FAC-FIAC (Fast Attack Craft - Fast Inshore Attack Craft). The FAC-FIAC event also included a MQ-9 launching of Hellfire striking inflatable targets over the water in the Gulf of Mexico, the first of its kind for Southern Strike.
“We were trying to conduct the MQ-9 launch of the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, but it’s over international waters and we don’t own it. There is a notice to mariners that we put out that this is going to happen at this time in this area and this going to be a restricted operating zone. On the day of our launch there is a shrimp boat there and we can’t get them to move so everyone is wondering what is going on. I’m looking around in the JOC (Joint Operations Center) and decide to call the Coast Guard and start working with them to validate it. Turns out you can put out all the notices in the world but they cannot force people to move since it is international water. That was a big learn point for us next year to do some kind of patrol or have them in the vicinity to prevent that incident from happening again,” Justin said.
Being able to go down for Southern Strike and validate the 124th ATKS’s tactics at the operational/tactical level sets the members up for success at home and they’re able to integrate into an exercise remotely and still do the tactics that they normally do with JTACs (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) from a varied level of experience on either end of the spectrum.
During the exercise, one of the JTACs asked Justin to drop two GBUs on a 30 sec delay on two different targets. “That’s just not something we can’t physically do, we’re not going to that, and we would never do that. But he doesn’t know that so for a pilot to be able to capture that while flying the plane still staying in the fight with the mission but having to problem solve at the same problem make sure that what they are hearing makes sense to them from the air side and matches intent for the ground side,” Justin said. It’s a good training opportunity that the MQ-9 pilots and crew don’t normally get. “It’s critical that we come to these exercises as LNO’s and or Air Crew to be able to not only explain that to the ground guys and ground support but also have the guys back home able to execute within that training scenario.”
He also witness how it has paid dividends for the team on site and the reputation as the Iowa ANG 124th ATKS, going down to Gulfport and being able to work in the multi-unit, multi-agency JOC (Joint Operation Center) where they worked with so many different entities and getting to learn from them and vice versa, was a huge value-added for this exercise alone.
Staff Sgt. Ryan a 124th ATKS sensor operator of the MQ-1 and MQ-9 with approximately three thousand flying hours throughout many AOC’s (Areas of Command), worked as a LNO for the Southern Strike Exercise. Ryan even had the opportunity to brief the North Dakota Adjutant General and Air Adjutant General, and explained to them how they can push the feed from the MQ-9’s, along with a generic, informal capabilities brief.
“There are just so many different people here from the Army, Navy, and Air Force that we don’t normally have a chance to interact with. I think it’s really beneficial having everyone here trying to coordinate together and work together as one cohesive unit,” Ryan said.
Ryan generally would do the LRE (Launch and Recovery Element) as opposed to what he is used to doing in Des Moines, flying the MC (Mission Control). In his experience, typically sensor operators on TDY are doing the launch and recovery. They don’t normally get a chance to step out of that box and actually do more of the coordination and communicating with other people.
“That’s why this is a really good learning experience, especially for the enlisted sensor operators. If they get a chance to come do this. It is very different from what we normally do so you gain a lot of knowledge that you wouldn’t normally pick up on without coming to do one of these exercises. There is no other way of learning this without going and doing it,” Ryan said.
Justin and Ryan’s stories of taking on new things was something also experienced by Master Sgt. Joshua. Joshua, a member of the 124th ATKS for the past eight years in Operations Intel, of his overall 24 years of service, took on many roles during Southern Strike.
He worked with the planners within the RPA group, getting the times, gathering all the info from the air sync meetings and working with the supporting units so they knew exactly who was going to be overhead and when and what they were providing.
“I think the biggest thing that I’ve gotten out of this is working with all the sister units, you’ve got Army, Navy, Joint Special Forces, and I think a lot of people on all sides have learned to communicate a little better with each other. Being able to bridge that gap in a true joint exercise, it’s definitely been big learning curve, but something that I’ll take home with me and understand other people’s pieces a little bit better,” Joshua said.
Both Joshua and Ryan hold Justin in the highest regard and the respect for them on his side is mutual.
“The guys have been able to integrate and add value that wasn’t already here, from my perspective as OIC (Officer in Charge) for this trip, observing them was incredible. Getting to see that and for them to do that, it wasn’t me saying go do that, it was all self-motivated, and as cliché as it sounds, it’s the Iowa standard and that’s what we bring,” Justin said.
Overall, Justin said he hasn’t had an experience similar to this with everything under the umbrella, having to run the show for the RPA’s on location in Gulfport having the LRE there, integrate remotely with all the different guard units. The LNOs on site were basically dictating what supporting units received their air support, what events they went to, and what munitions were dropped on any given day. “That is all on us,” said Justin.
Back in Iowa, Lt. Col Andrew, 124th ATKS Director of Operations, said an exercise like Southern Strike provides a huge value both in money saved and experience gained. While the members were on the ground at the CRTC in Gulfport, they had the whole of the 124th ATKS participating and supporting the exercise in one way or another.
“It trains our guys to integrate in those environments, it also trains the other folks the other F-16s the gunships C-130s even JTACS and other guys, teaches them how to work with us as well. So it’s training on both fronts on how to use an RPA and in this case an MQ-9,” Andrew said.
The members of the 124th ATKS flew 20.2 hours, dropped four GBU-12 laser guided bombs, eight GBU-38’s JDAMS, and both munitions are 500lb class weapons. All-in-all two crews from the Tennessee ANG were in Des Moines flying with the unit and they had multiple crews trained and ready to go.
It’s tough for him to put a number on it, but really everybody, the MCC (Mission Cell Coordination), the mission commander, really it’s the SOF (Supervisor of Flying) is stepping both crews for combat and for the training exercise, with different members briefing it and flying it. “Even if you just said we only flew over 20 hours we had a lot more involved than that. Everybody from Intel to Communications, Orderly Room cutting the orders, all of them are doing that on top of the normal continuous 24/7 combat line.
“Almost everyone was involved in some way, the weird thing is here is we’re doing this all here while we’re flying our combat line in a GCS right next door, meanwhile we’re trying to fly the training line in CONUS all at the same time,” Andrew said.