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Storming the Enemy
It’s noon, cold and quiet. Sunlight struggles to penetrate the cloud cover leaving the power plant gray-white like coal ash. A group of men crouch by an array of mortar tubes while the satellite dish on an anti-aircraft defense system rotates in the distance. Some of the men nervously readjust their rifles. They had crossed the border in the night and captured the terrorist bait known as energy infrastructure. They set up defenses. They dug in. For the moment, they are the proud new owners of a coal-fired power plant. But as their defensive posture indicates, they don’t believe their possession will go unchallenged. A counterattack will come. Everyone knows it.
It’s just a matter of time. This scenario-based training exercise is the combined brainchild of Army National Guard and Air Guard units from South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Orchestrated over three days last November, Operation Carolina Thunder aimed to maintain a high level of combat readiness against potential threats. The opposing force (OPFOR) at the power plant is made up of infantry Soldiers from the South Carolina Guard, but they could just as easily be terrorists occupying an oil field in Kuwait or attacking a hydroelectric dam in Afghanistan. The Guard’s goal in this mission seems deceptively simple: Take out the OPFOR and regain the plant. As it turns out, it’s no easy task.
To make the large-scale operation a success, hundreds of Soldiers and Airmen and scores of aircraft must maneuver in an elaborate choreography of narrow timetables and precise lanes. Their detailed coordination demonstrates the complexity of modern warfare: combining airstrikes with air assault, and friendly forces on the ground with protective cover from the sky.
Although the intricacies of this exercise took nearly two years of planning, Carolina Thunder itself will last only a few hours from the time the first aircraft takes off to the time the troops load into Chinooks to head back to base. But that speed does not imply simplicity. There are several vitally important pieces to the puzzle, and each has its own unique set of challenges. If any one piece fails, the entire mission could unravel.
THE STAGING GROUND
The occupied power plant is situated a few miles away from the Savannah River dividing South Carolina from Georgia. Decommissioned years ago, the site has a valuable attribute for training: realism. In the modern energy age, power generation facilities make attractive targets, and the ability to defend and/or recapture them is a must.
Miles of twisted pipes, ducts, wires and stacks provide infinite cover for an occupying force. An entrenched enemy has an incredible upper hand in a location like this, especially if there is a desire to avoid exploding everything in regaining the plant.
In this scenario, the OPFOR has positioned radar rocket systems and surface-to-air missiles at the perimeter. The mortar team is more centrally located, and snipers have climbed onto the rusted catwalks and behind piping that crisscrosses the facilities’ roofs. There is plenty of cover from a ground attack, and there are plenty of opportunities to make a handful of terrorists feel like a battalion.
With the power plant secure, the OPFOR sits and waits. A ceiling of clouds hangs low and bright. Seven miles above the power plant, an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) aircraft cruises the distant edge of the battlespace. It passes overhead, too high to be heard or seen, even without the cloud cover. If the enemy knew the plane was there, it would be its first glimpse of a real threat.
The aircraft, supplied for this exercise by the Georgia Air National Guard, was developed by the Air Force and Army, and built on the chassis of a Boeing 707. This aerial radar and command and control center houses four high-speed data processors, and it can simultaneously track 600 enemy targets at a distance up to 150 miles. It is the great big eye in the sky feeding highly detailed intelligence to aviation assets and ground troops.
A JSTARS plane can fly a nine-hour mission without refueling. This one has already been relaying intel on the plant back to McEntire Joint National Guard Base in Hopkins, SC, where four F-16s, 30 AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopters and four CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters perform last-minute preflight checks, and their operators go through their battle plans one last time. The plane circles the quiet stratosphere tracking an enemy ignorant to its presence, helping command form a final plan of attack.
The JSTARS aircraft intel has mapped the captured power plant by locating familiar heat signatures off the enemy air defenses, which are an initial hazard. If the Apaches are going to get in close, the air defenses must be degraded. The call is made back to McEntire, and pilots from the 169th Fighter Wing, South Carolina Air Guard, fire up their F-16 Fighting Falcons and head southwest toward the Savannah River.
Part workhorse, part warhorse, F-16s have been in use since 1974, later playing a pivotal combat role during Operation Desert Storm. They strike hard and fast—so fast that the aeronautic engineers had to optimize the angle of the seats to help pilots withstand the consequent G-forces. Armed with an M61 A1 Vulcan six-barrel, Gatling-style rotary cannon capable of firing 6,000 20 mm rounds per minute and a well-stocked grab bag of air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, bombs and rockets, the F-16 is not in the business of making new friends.
The F-16 is the tip of a very lethal spear, and it is the first part of the offensive action at Carolina Thunder. Given its speed and firepower, it has the ability to safely eliminate the air defenses that will allow Apaches to fly in and provide close cover to a ground assault. “Helicopters are slow, low-movers,” says First Lieutenant Lucian Gerard LaPierre, an Apache pilot with the 1st Battalion, 151st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, out of South Carolina. “The F-16s’ portion of the mission is to destroy air defense that the [Apaches] are vulnerable to.”
The Apache Longbow isn’t fast, but it’s incredibly adept at interdiction attacks. Captain Matt Summey, assistant operations officer for the 1/151st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, explains their training goals for the Apache.
“We want to maintain the small counterinsurgency teams of two Apaches fighting that we’ve been [using] over the last 10 to 15 years. We have multiple deployments doing it,” he says. “We’re also maintaining our over-water capability, which makes us very unique from other AH-64D battalions in the Army.” Carolina Thunder rounds out the Apache’s third major skill set, demonstrating its capability, he notes, “in large, force-on-force linear battlefield type of operations.”
With more room for armaments than people, these helicopters aren’t personnel carriers or cargo transports; they are vehicles of war. The two pilots in an Apache are stacked one behind the other—each with independent flight and weapons controls, isolated from one another by shielding, so a fatal incoming round wouldn’t compromise both pilots.
Among its armaments, the Apache’s M230 chain gun, capable of firing over 600 30 mm rounds per minute and destroying targets from up to 4,000 meters, can track and aim precisely where the pilot is looking through a display mounted on their helmet. “There’s nothing like shooting that 30 mm,” LaPierre says. The Apache is also equipped with a fire control radar system than can independently track 128 targets, calculate a firing solution and engage up to 16 targets at once.
When their time finally comes, the team of Apaches from the 1/151st and North Carolina’s 1st Battalion, 130th Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, approach battle positions and wait. The F-16s are approaching in the near distance, and the JSTARS plane glides high overhead, tracking all aircraft in the area as well as the enemy defenses on the ground that are still unaware of the impending attack.
Before air assets began their mission, personnel were already assembling a Forward Area Refueling/Rearming Point (FARRP) in the field to support them. Because of the typical distance enemy forces are from a base, FARRPs are used to minimize the downtime associated with flying back to refuel and rearm during battle. A KC-135 air refueler from the Tennessee Air Guard played an integral role in this early stage of the exercise.
“For a mission of this scale and duration, we can’t maintain our station the entire time,” says LaPierre. “A FARRP is set out beyond your base so aircraft can come in and refuel, take on any additional ammunition without having to return to base, giving them a greater on-station time.”
Back on the McEntire tarmac, a CH-47 Chinook’s two turboshaft engines are engaged and its twin rotors start churning the air. Another aircraft comes to life. Then another. The Soldiers of South Carolina’s 1st Battalion, 118th Infantry Regiment, 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, are loaded in, sitting on bench seats with their rifles, barrels down, between their legs.
One man stands out among the infantry Soldiers in the back of a Chinook. Mainly, because he’s not a Soldier; he’s an Airman kitted out like a special operator. He is the joint terminal attack controller (JTAC), an air traffic control qualified ground combatant who spends more time attached to Army units than Air Force assets. The JTAC is the person on the ground who can call in close air support to take out any obstacle in the infantry’s way. With the ability to direct any available air asset to aid the forward motion of a ground assault, JTACs are incredibly handy in difficult situations, so much so that most special operations units have a JTAC permanently attached.
The JTAC and the ground troops are preparing to be flown into battle by the Chinooks, piloted by members of 2nd Battalion, 151st Security and Support Aviation Battalion. But the Chinooks are not attack helicopters, and they—and their infantry cargo—are relatively defenseless against attack.
What it lacks in offensive capabilities, a Chinook makes up for in speed. With room for 55 Soldiers per aircraft and the strength to lift two elephants’ worth of cargo weight, the Chinook is not just a big helicopter—it’s also impressively fast. With top speeds exceeding the Apache, the Chinook can get in and out of a battle quickly, dropping Soldiers and cargo in hot zones and then disappearing. Whether managing troop movement or cargo transport, the Chinook is great at what it does, but it’s not a luxury liner. Its unpressurized cabin is cold and brutally noisy, and the fuselage vibration is jarring and constant.
The success of the Chinooks depends on the staggered countersuppression of enemy air defenses led by the F-16s and followed by the Apaches. Without the hole these initial stages aim to blow in the enemy’s defenses, the Chinooks wouldn’t be able to get close enough to drop their payload.
The call comes in. The Chinooks lift off. The counterattack begins.
As the Chinooks land in an open field near the Savannah River, their tail doors lower into the tall grass. Soldiers quickly unload as the rotor wash kicks up a fog of debris, and they crouch in a ditch for cover. The F-16s have dropped their ordnance, and the Apaches continue their suppressive attacks. The Chinooks leave, and in a surprisingly short time, their deafening roar is gone.
The Soldiers of the 1/118th break into three squads and begin their approach, leaving the relative cover of the tall grass for the open field that lies between them and the power plant. Enemy and mortar fire break out, and the Soldiers run to take cover behind the metal ramparts of the power plant. Their mission is to clear and secure the overrun power plant.
While the JSTARS plane is the eye in the sky, the JTAC is the eye on the ground. At the site of the power plant, the JTAC directs the Apaches in the destruction of the enemy’s mortar defenses or anything else the OPFOR comes up with to slow the infantry’s progress. With the ability to see what the JSTARS sees, the JTAC calls in to command, having identified enemy positions. In an actual battle, the JTAC would coordinate for a missile strike or shine a laser on a target that ordnance can lock on to.
“It’s important to integrate and work together because we can’t accomplish the mission otherwise,” says Major Ryan Corrigan, air operations planner, 169th Fighter Wing. “Air can’t do it by itself. The Army can’t do it by itself. We work together to become an effective fighting force and achieve the commander’s objective.”
Apaches swoop in to attack, and infantry advances. Rifle fire echoes off the galvanized metal, and the squads move forward as they slowly gain ground. The assault now hinges on ground tactics, putting lead downrange and clearing sector after sector. After two hours on the ground, the operation is over. The power plant is out of enemy control.
It’s a violent dance, with each step removing obstacles and bringing the plan one step closer to mission success. Each asset relies on the other to carry out the mission. The F-16s destroy air defenses that the Apaches cannot defend; the Apaches destroy air defenses the Chinooks cannot defend; the Chinooks deploy their combat troops; the JTAC directs the combat aircraft to clear paths; and the infantry advances to clear the enemy from the battle site.
After the operation is over, Summey reflects, then looks ahead. “It’s not a culminating exercise,” he says. “This is a large-scale mission. We did it during the day today. When we leave here, we’re going to continue training. We’re going to train to be able to do it at night. We’re going to train to be able to do it under adverse weather conditions.”
That mindset, and the Guard’s ability to coordinate these complex elements, help make the Guard prepared for any threat. “It’s important when you look at the situations going on around the world today,” Summey says, “that we’re not only capable, but that we’re capable and we’re ready at a moment’s notice.”