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Swamp Foxes wrap up a successful Arctic Challenge Exercise in Sweden

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jim St. Clair
  • 169th Fighter Wing/Public Affairs

U.S. Airmen, equipment, and F-16CJ Fighting Falcon aircraft assigned to the South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing successfully finished three weeks in Sweden for Arctic Challenge Exercise 19. ACE 19 is a biennial Nordic aviation exercise that serves to amplify scenario-based defensive training and interaction between countries across northern Europe. “Training exercises like ACE 19 are critical because this region is full of potential adversaries with a robust air threat. And the way that threat will be dealt with is by all the partner nations coming together. Interoperability is what we sought to work on and grow,” said Col. Akshai Gandhi, 169th Fighter Wing Commander.

The South Carolina Air National Guard, known as the Swamp Foxes, deployed nearly 200 Airmen and a dozen F-16s from McEntire Joint National Guard Base to Sweden for ACE 19. During the exercise, U.S. forces trained with eight other militaries including Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. In addition to the SCANG forces at Kallax Air Base, the Massachusetts Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing sent Airmen and F-15C Eagle aircraft to Bodø, Norway. And the Iowa Air National Guard’s 185th Air Refueling Wing and the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 108thWing deployed Airmen and KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft to Ørland, Norway. Lastly, the U.S. Marine Corps also participated in ACE 19 and sent Marines and F/A-18 Hornet aircraft from the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing to Rovaniemi Air Base, Finland and a Tactical Air Operations Center and Marines from the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing to Jokkmokk, Sweden. 

All in all, 140 aircraft and 4,000 military personnel from nine nations participated in ACE 19. Swedish Air Force Lt. Col. Tobias Wikstrom, Wing Commander Flying at Kallax Air Base, stated approximately 1,600 sorties were flown for ACE 19. During some flight missions, as many as 100 combat aircraft were in the exercise airspace simultaneously. The Arctic Challenge Exercise provided participating countries a unique opportunity to plan and execute a large multinational air operation. The exercise concept was based on a United Nations mandate to operate a large international stabilization force against a highly-skilled, near-peer competitor. All facets of air operations were tested, including offensive and defensive scenarios consisting of both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions.

One of the reasons the SCANG was invited to participate in this year’s exercise was to demonstrate their expertise of the suppression of enemy air defenses mission set to partner nations in a realistic training environment.

“I think they’ve learned quite a bit about the unique mission of the suppression of enemy air defenses, SEAD, which the Swamp Fox jets have provided. SEAD was not a mission set that they were overly familiar with. They really didn’t see it in action until we arrived. The last ACE exercise in 2017 did not have any Block 52s (SEAD capable F-16s) partake. That was something we brought to the table this time which was different,” said Maj. Shaun Hoeltje, the SCANG’s ACE 19 project officer.

In addition to partner nations learning more about SEAD, the SCANG also learned some things during ACE 19. 

“One of the things we’re learning is how to operate in the arctic region. It is a challenging environment and it is a good bit different than some of the desert environments or the typical climate in the United States. We’re also learning what some of their capabilities are. We’ve learned that they’re all very professional air forces with slightly different approaches. We’re bridging those gaps so we’ll be a more effective fighting team if that day ever comes,” Gandhi said.

ACE 19 garnered national and international attention. Multiple VIPs stopped by for briefings and to visit with SCANG Airmen including Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, Commander U.S. Air Forces in Europe Gen. Jeff Harrigian and Swedish Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist. In addition, many other general officers and distinguished visitors were in attendance. During ACE 19 Media Day, Swedish local media as well as international media were granted special access and interviews with participating forces at Kallax Air Base. 

During their TDY, Swamp Fox maintenance personnel and pilots had numerous opportunities for professional exchanges with their Swedish Air Force counterparts. The F-16 pilots interacted closely with the JAS 39 Gripen pilots with both hands-on inspections of aircraft as well as orientation flights. And the maintainers got to learn more about how each other’s shops do business.

“Participating in an exercise like ACE 19 is really important to the South Carolina Air National Guard because it allows us to further grow relationships with our partner nations. As we bring our aircraft and our systems into play during this exercise, they are learning how to best utilize these capabilities and how to best integrate what we bring to the fight,” Gandhi said. 

This is the first opportunity the SCANG has had to work directly with some of these partner nations, such as Sweden and the U.K. They brought their A-game to the exercise and made a good impression Hoeltje noted. “They are very capable especially in the air-to-air regime. They do a very good job; the Eurofighters and the Gripens. Their pilots are very smart and very well trained. We’ve never flown with them before so we’ve been surprised in a good way. We’ve learned that they are very capable partners and allies,” he said.

Reflecting on his experiences over the last three weeks, and asked to assess ACE 19 as a whole, Hoeltje concluded ACE 19 has been positive overall. “We are an expeditionary Air Force. So the real challenge in these exercises is just getting here and learning something when you’re here. The lessons learned were generally on the tactical level: integrating with all these partner nations. I think those are all plusses. We’ve accomplished those objectives. It’s been a good learning experience,” Hoeltje said.