It will be a show of force in the dead of night, filling the starry skies of Washington state.
Thirteen C-17 Globemaster IIIs, 20 C-130 Hercules, nine KC-135 tankers, two KC-10 Extender tankers, and aircraft from four allied partner nations will work together in one huge flight to airdrop 600 soldiers, part of the first-of-its-kind Mobility Guardian exercise, officials detailed to Military.com.
But the two-week-long exercise, headed by Air Mobility Command, won't just be dropping cargo and soldiers in what officials call a joint forcible entry scenario. Fighter and attack aircraft will be keeping watch and practicing their own routines overhead.
"This is a fully integrated threat scenario, where we will have ... 'red air' fighters [acting as adversaries], fighters that will be our escorts and then we will drop the [Army's] 82nd Airborne [Division] so that they can go take down an airfield," said Lt. Col. Jeremy Wagner, Mobility Guardian director.
"This is a massive muscle movement for us," he said in an interview with Military.com on Tuesday.
The overall exercise, which begins July 31, will feature more than 3,000 personnel, including the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, and troops and equipment from roughly 30 countries at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.
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Three other locations -- Moses Lake, Fairchild AFB, and Yakima Air Terminal-McAllister Field -- will act as hubs for training between July 31 and Aug. 12, officials said.
B-2 Spirits and B-52 Stratofortress bombers will practice air refueling. The A-400M Atlas transport plane from both the United Kingdom and France will for the first time participate in an exercise, Wagner added.
And the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will take part -- but like the bombers, it will conduct only refueling training, Wagner said.
Officials are planning a tough test for airlift crews. "We're going to make a very difficult threat scenario for our … pilots," Wagner said.
"Now we're taking the junior captains, the lieutenants, and we're trying to give them experiences as to when they go do their warfighting core skill set, they're going to have a departure from their previous experiences," he said.
Gen. Carlton Everhart II, commander of AMC, said the exercise "gets after readiness."
"This sharpens the combat skills that we may need, it increases our readiness … and allows us to practice our four core mission sets together at one time," he said, referring to cargo drop, humanitarian relief, air refueling and en route support.
"Someone has to set the table -- that's Air Mobility Command," Everhart told Military.com on Wednesday. "Someone has to sustain the table -- that's Air Mobility Command. And when it's all done, someone has to clean it up to refit and refurb -- that's Air Mobility Command."
The joint forcible entry training will require major deconfliction channel efforts, Wagner said. Airlift planes such as C-17s do not have a defensive capability, so constant communication will allow pilots to know "who's going to take what action," he said.
The second leg of the exercise will have a humanitarian component to it. "It will be movement of a medical brigade to one of our locations," Wagner said.
"Really, the biggest thing is to learn how to integrate within a machine," he said. "Getting 3,000 personnel up to one general location and using all Air Mobility aircraft to do it, that in it of itself is enormous."
Training for a Future War
The exercise will provide training applicable to many potential future conflicts, including with enemies such as North Korea, Syria and Russia, AMC officials said.
"It's full spectrum. Joint forcible entry -- we're looking a near-peer" adversary, Wagner said. This is "near-peer advanced tactics" with U.S. partners. "We wouldn't do it alone -- there's no way we could do it alone."
Wagner couldn't get into specifics, but the exercise includes an electronic attack and cyber element.
Electronic warfare, for example, is a popular tactic being used in Eastern Ukraine. First observed in 2014, Russian-backed separatists have been jamming signals to misdirect or take out commercial drones Ukrainian soldiers use to conduct aerial surveillance.
"There will be suppression of enemy air defenses, jamming -- yes, all those things," Wagner said of the exercise.
On the ground, service members will practice how to rapidly repair an airfield.
"We're also dropping a light airfield repair package -- basically road graders, things that would, no kidding, repair an airfield if we dropped an airborne unit" with them, Wagner said.
Over the course of two weeks, 1,000 cargo packages -- or 2 million pounds of equipment -- will be dropped.
AMC airmen will also practice hot refueling training to "pass fuel as the engines are still running" on the C-130J models, Wagner said.
"That's a capability we're trying to make standard across all of Air Mobility Command for the J models," he said of the newest C-130 variant.
The goal in all of these circumstances is to survive, and get in and out as quickly as possible.
It's training the entire Air Force could use, Everhart said, adding he wants to conduct another Mobility Guardian in roughly two years. He said the exercise is within AMC's budget, "relative cheap, a couple million dollars."
"It's going to be worth it, I believe, twice to 10 times over," Everhart said.
Considering fiscal budget constraints in recent years, the Air Force needs to work on skill sets it hasn't sharpened in a while, Wagner said.
"Anytime you have that many American lives to go fight, it's a very easy target -- that's where we're trying to provide the difficulty," Wagner said. "This is something we have to be prepared for."