A hulking C-130J Super Hercules sits on the moonlit tarmac at Larissa Air Base, Greece. A string of human figures emerges from a nearby hangar. Like ants, they make a quick procession into the back of the plane, which is already loaded with aircraft generators, tool carts and other bulky cargo. Moments later, the engines rev and the C-130 is airborne.
This flight is part of Castle Forge, an ongoing U.S.-led operation in the Black Sea region. Its purpose is to test the partnerships and interoperability that make Agile Combat Employment possible.
“We provide the agile combat airlift that the fighters require to operate from austere locations,” said Capt. Michael Plash, C-130 pilot, assigned to the 815th Airlift Squadron, 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. “Our aircraft are equipped to carry their personnel, cargo, fuel and support equipment to execute any mission set the fighters demand.”
Soon, the C-130 will touch down at Borcea AB, Romania, where the personnel and cargo will receive a package of F-15E Strike Eagles from the 4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C., inbound the next day.
Two weeks ago, Plash had no idea he would be in Eastern Europe. By definition, Castle Forge is meant to be carried out at short notice, but when other events in the U.S. European Command theater of operations put a high demand on airlift capability this autumn, planners at U.S. Air Forces Europe-Air Forces Africa turned to the U.S. Air Force Reserve for a solution.
“By the time the 403rd Wing received the official notification we were going to Castle Forge, that left us with only two weeks to prepare,” Plash said. “We needed to find Reservists who were capable of participating and then had to coordinate with USAFE, Air Force Reserve Command, the 22nd Air Force, and numerous other agencies to meet the demands of Castle Forge, plus ensure all of our members were properly trained and funded to execute the required tasking.”
Plash is a full-time Air Reserve technician with the 815th AS, but many of his teammates are traditional Reservists, serving only one weekend a month and two weeks a year for training. This means that many had to leave civilian employers and families at short notice, with few details about what their mission during Castle Forge would entail.
Against all odds, they made it happen. Now, alongside their active-duty counterparts from Ramstein AB‘s 37th AS, they are supporting a key initiative that has become central to how the U.S. engages with its NATO allies and regional partners to strengthen interoperability.
“Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, is the ability to quickly reposition to austere airfields and quickly generate aircraft and missions, so that we can keep potential adversaries on their toes,” said Lt. Col. Harry Starnes, Castle Forge project officer for the 4th Fighter Wing. “The reason it is important to train with our allies is that we are going to count on them and they are going to count on us to make this happen if we are ever actually called to fight in a conflict.”
As Castle Forge continues this month at Larissa AB, Greece; Borcea AB, Romania and Graf Ignatievo AB, Bulgaria, the ability to rapidly move personnel and support equipment between these locations will remain a central enabler of the F-15s’ ability to generate airpower anytime, anywhere.
Meanwhile, Air Force leaders are recognizing the advantage of total force solutions like the one provided by Plash and teammates at the 815th AS.
“The airlift movements associated with Castle Forge are a prime example of our active duty and Reserve teammates working together to get after the mission,” said Gen. Jeff Harrigian, NATO Allied Air Command and U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa commander. “Together, we were able to quickly forward-deploy the F-15s and generate combat-credible airpower in two key locations.”