ROYAL AUSTRALIAN AIR FORCE BASE RICHMOND, Australia -- Four U.S. Air Force and one Royal Australian air force C-17 Globemaster IIIs loaded with more than 300 American and Canadian paratroopers took off July 13 from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, for Shoalwater Bay, Australia, for exercise Talisman Saber.
Every two years, U.S. and Australian military forces partner to conduct a month-long exercise to enhance global readiness in a realistic training environment. This year’s exercise involves over 33,000 troops, 21 ships and more than 200 joint aircraft. The exercise prepares the U.S. and its coalition partners for rapid assistance and delivery of personnel and equipment.
Both countries’ mobility forces make the training possible. The aerial refueling and transport of Soldiers demonstrates both countries’ abilities to deliver Army paratroopers to any location at any time.
“What we’re doing with our C-17s in Talisman Saber is practicing for joint forcible entry operations,” said Air Force Capt. Chris Mahan, lead C-17 planner for Talisman Saber 2017, weapons officer and evaluator pilot for the 15th Airlift Squadron. “What makes the C-17 so valuable in a mission like this is the fact it’s diverse. It is air refuelable, airdrop capable and has the ability to fly great distances.”
The distance spans the length of the planet’s biggest ocean. Each globemaster traveled more than 8,000 miles to reach Australia.
“The C-17 is one of the few aircraft that has a perfect balance of strategic and tactical airlift capabilities," said Mahan. "It allows our crews to execute a direct delivery from Alaska all the way to Australia and demonstrates the capabilities this aircraft has when we’re enabled by our KC-10 and KC-135s refuelers in order to employ combat power."
The aerial refueling process demonstrates the importance and necessity of partnership in the realm of global mobility. When conducting a mid-air refueling, precision and confidence are key to the C-17’s ability to travel great distances.
Flying the length of the largest ocean on Earth requires a consistent supply of fuel. Each C-17 had to refuel twice on during the 17-hour flight to Shoalwater Bay making support from KC-10 Extender and KC-135 Stratotanker air refuelers vital. The C-17s can’t make the flight without that support.
“What’s very important about an air refueling is that we are a smaller part in a bigger puzzle,” said Air Force Col. Jimmy Canlas, 437th Airlift Wing commander and Talisman Saber mission commander. “We couldn’t accomplish this mission without air refueling. It’s very challenging because unlike a training environment, we are receiving a large load of gas, 65,000 to 80,000 pounds of gas and the aircraft reacts differently when its heavy weight versus light weight training scenarios.”
The tankers were pre-positioned at Eielson AFB Alaska, and Wake Island, a small atoll in the western Pacific Ocean, allowing the C-17s to refuel exactly when needed. Altogether, the tankers offloaded more than 700,000 pounds of fuel.
"This is what the KC-10 was made to do," said Lt. Col. Stew Welch, 9th Air Refueling Squadron commander and the Ultimate Reach tanker mission commander. "Getting a large package of C-17s with their Army payload from one continent to another is not going to happen without air refueling. This is the bread and butter of what we do in the KC-10 world and it is a privilege to do it [for Talisman Saber]."
Working together is important both mid-air and on the ground. With the C-17s and paratroopers kick-starting exercise Talisman Saber, service members of all branches and nationalities come together to maintain regional security, peace and stability.
“It’s very important for us as Airmen to participate in something like this because it opens up the aperture for every Airman who is involved because they realize quickly that it’s not all about the Air Force,” said Canlas. “In fact, we’re a very small part of this whole exercise. It’s us supporting the Army, we’re also supporting the Navy, and we’re also supporting the Marines. We provide the transportation to execute strategic insertion.”
Once the C-17s receive fuel, the paratroopers are ready for their drop. With 58 jumps under his belt, jumpmaster and Army 1st Sgt. Bill Ables of Easy Company, 6th Brigade Engineer Battalion, 4/25 Airborne, leads 54 paratroopers in the Ground Force Component of the exercise.
“When I’m jumping out of a C-17 I’m primarily going through my first five points of performance, which is getting the six-second count of the way, making sure my parachute is deployed, and focusing on my tasks to get to the ground safely,” said Ables. “The purpose in practicing a jump like this is to prepare myself and my unit for airborne operations in response to any kind of contingency operations we may have to face.”
As soon as they hit the ground, their operations begin.
“My mission while on the ground during this exercise will be to locate any kind of resupply items and to get those items to designated areas for the ground forces and resupply them with water and food,” said Ables.
Also supporting the Army’s Ground Force objectives are RAAF C-17 pilots. Working closely together with the U.S. military is beneficial to both nations involved in the exercise.
Flight Lieutenant James Tockuss, assistant main co-pilot of a RAAF C-17, is responsible for assisting the aircraft captain with fuel planning and the airdrop exercise in Shoalwater Bay. For Tockuss, working with the U.S. Air Force for the first time is instructive.
“It’s been really interesting to see how the U.S. Air Force works as an organization, especially the differences between the U.S. and us back in Australia,” said Tockuss. “I look forward to learning how the U.S. Air Force conducts their operations and seeing what lessons the Australians can learn from working with them.”
By conducting planning briefs, air refuelings and airdrops together with coalition partners, the U.S. and its allies strengthen their military relationships and prepare to provide security around the globe.
Exercise participants said the sheer size of the mission and wide range of backgrounds for troops involved add the greatest value to the training.
“The greatest thing about Talisman Saber that we don’t get to do very often is we get to work with so many different services, components, major commands and nationalities,” said Mahan. “Complex exercises like Talisman Saber allow us to expose the crews to what joint operations are going to entail when we go into combat with a coalition, so our military forces can know what to expect and what it’s going to look like.”