VOLK FIELD AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Wis. -- The 19th Airlift Wing’s ROCKI 21-02 exercise at Volk Field ANG Base came to a close May 6, as the wing assessed its ability to deploy into theater as a lead Air Expeditionary Wing – becoming Air Mobility Command’s first to experiment with the lead wing construct in a dynamic exercise environment.
The overarching intent of ROCKI 21-02 focused on testing the rapid insertion of an AEW into a bare base environment, establishing logistics and communications with theater command and control in order to receive follow-on forces, generate mission employment, and project combat power across all domains.
“Today’s adversaries possess the capability to strike our operational centers of gravity, directly threatening our capability to project agile combat airlift,” said Col. John Schutte, 19th AW commander. “In order to effectively execute airlift operations, we must assume that traditional bases postured for today’s fight will be immediately threatened. This creates the need to operate with more agility while generating airpower.”
ROCKI 21-02 Phase I operations, specifically evaluated the wing’s ability to assemble, assess and deploy nearly 250 personnel to an off-station, simulated combat environment in less than 36 hours.
Departing from Little Rock Air Force Base, a four-ship lead and four-ship follow of C-130J Super Hercules forward deployed to Volk Field, where a contingent of 19th AW Multi-Capable Airmen established a main operating base from the ground-up.
“For the last 20 years, we’ve become comfortable with forming a team on the line of scrimmage in a mature theater,” Schutte said. “In today’s environment, we don’t have that luxury. We have to make sure we are task organized at home station and capable of projecting our forces forward if the flag were to go up.”
Experimentation as opposed to evaluation was at the heart of ROCKI 21-02.
Although the wing has aggressively pursued training on full-spectrum readiness, ROCKI 21-02 served as the first time in the last decade that it exercised the projection of forces into an off-station combat readiness training center.
“After projecting ourselves out of Little Rock Air Force Base in a Phase I inspection, our time at Volk Field was really about experimentation,” Schutte said. “We’re at the early stages of experimenting with lead wing concepts across our Air Force. As we lead the way for AMC, we’ve learned the importance of being agile and thinking through how this organic capability that we have within the C-130 enterprise is capable of projecting our forces into immature theaters and taking the fight to our nation’s adversaries.”
The generation of a lead wing is an evolutionary, not revolutionary, approach to force presentation to address near-peer conflict as defined in the national defense strategy.
Schutte noted that exercises like ROCKI 21-02 represent the next step in the wing’s evolution as an accelerant for change across Air Mobility Command.
“ROCKI 21-02 has shown that not only is dynamic force employment critical, it is possible,” Schutte said. “Through this experiment, we have gained a better understanding of how we can provide mobility air power and a wide range of other capabilities to our combatant commanders while remaining agile and lethal.”
Projecting Airpower from the Ground Up
In the months leading into ROCKI 21-02, the 19th AW trained hundreds of Airmen on MCA and expeditionary core competencies as means to create a lighter, leaner footprint — utilizing only resources the wing could organically deploy forward.
“During the execution phase, our EST (Expeditionary Skills Training) and MCA training was essential to standing up our air base,” said Lt. Col. Korinne Takeyama, 19th Civil Engineer Squadron commander. “This is not something we normally do, but as we came into this exercise and got our feet on the ground, we demonstrated that we could organically stand up and sustain ourselves with what we brought from home station.”
From establishing infrastructure and communications to implementing a robust security apparatus, the wing achieved full operational capability in just 43 hours after touching down at Volk Field.
“Knowing what our competitors are doing these days, we have to learn how to fight in different arenas and in different ways, and doing that lighter and leaner is the only way we can do that,” Takeyama said. “Ensuring that we get these reps to develop this warfighting concept for Air Mobility Command is imperative if we were to go forward in a real-world contested environment.”
Integrating Mobility and Combat Air Forces
As part of the 19th AW’s ROCKI 21-02 exercise, the wing also integrated with Air Combat Command’s AGILE FLAG 21-2 exercise, providing airlift support and conducting Integrated Combat Turns in their simulated deployed environment.
ACC’s AGILE FLAG 21-2 exercise tested the 4th Fighter Wing from Seymour-Johnson AFB, North Carolina on its ability to deploy into theater as a lead AEW.
“A modern, peer-war fight requires a warrior culture, credibility, capacity and high-end capability,” said Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of ACC in a press release. “The units that ACC sends forward have to seamlessly plug-in to their combat-engaged formations and structures.”
According to Kelly, aligning with directives from the Air Force chief of staff, there’s no time for the team forward deploying to acclimate to one another and there’s no time for a combat-engaged Combined Forces Air Component Commanders to provide on-the-job training.
The 4th FW’s lead wing exercise focused on employing mission generation, command and control, and base operating support-integrator elements from its main operating base at Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida, while supporting two contingency locations and a forward operating base.
“For our Air Force, projecting forces forward is inherently a Combat Air Force and Mobility Air Force fight,” Schutte said. “Integration at the tactical level is incredibly important, but it’s also important that we sort through how to project lead wings into those contested, immature theaters.”
Schutte added that, “despite the tyranny of distance with us (the 19th AW) operating in Wisconsin and our 4th FW brethren operating in Florida, the concurrent exercises demonstrated how both commands can prosecute the fight and integrate together in a dynamic operating environment.”
“Partnering with Agile Flag and the 4th Fighter Wing has been an incredible learning opportunity. Not just for us in the Mobility Air Forces, but also the Combat Air Forces,” he said. “The teamwork we’ve demonstrated in this effort, both experimenting and furthering our full spectrum readiness, is certainly noteworthy and I’m proud to partner alongside them.”