Four A-10C Thunderbolt IIs from the 355th Wing/354th Fighter Squadron (FS) ‘Bulldogs’ and the Michigan Air National Guard’s (ANG's) 127th Wing/107th FS ‘Red Devils’ landed on a less than one mile stretch of the M-32 state highway just west of Alpena, Michigan, on August 5 as part of the large-scale training exercise Northern Strike 21. This is the first time in history that the US Air Force (USAF) has purposely landed modern aircraft on a civilian roadway in the US.
Two C-146A Wolfhounds assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command’s 492nd and 919th Special Operations Wings also executed highway landings at part of the exercise, highlighting the service’s ability to integrate and employ diverse missions in austere environments. The event was co-ordinated with the Michigan Department of Transportation, which facilitated closure of a section of the M-32 for five hours, from 0800hrs to 1300hrs, on the day of the exercise so that the landings and take-offs could take place.
To start the training event, a team of Special Tactics Airmen from the 24th Special Operations Wing infiltrated, secured and controlled the airfield or in this case, the closed public highway. Special Tactics Airmen are a special operations ground force, experienced in conducting global access missions such as establishing austere landing zones around the world.
USAF Lt Col Jeff Falcone, the Special Tactics lead for the exercise, said: “The training event would not be possible without our Special Tactics Airmen. Our Special Tactics are the critical team providing air ground communications including air traffic control, making sure the air assault zone is suitable for aircraft. We also have medical personnel embedded in our Special Tactics team, which provides an additional capability not only for protection of our team, but also for the other forces and anyone else in the area.” Once the airfield was ready, the ST Airmen on the ground called in the first A-10 Thunderbolt II assigned to the 127th Wing, followed by the C-146A Wolfhound.
The 355th Wing participation in this exercise demonstrates the unit’s continued effort to refine its agile combat employment (ACE) capabilities and Dynamic Wing concept, which improve its airmen’s ability to operate from austere locations with limited infrastructure and personnel. The A-10’s ability to land on a variety of surfaces, like highways and unimproved landing strips, allows the USAF to project combat airpower closer quickly.
USAF Capt John Renner, 354th FS flight commander and one of the pilots who participated in the highway landing, said: “This proof of concept proves that we can land on any highway and continue to operate. The A-10 allows us to land a lot more places to get fuel, weapons and other armament so we can operate anywhere, anytime. This will allow us to get away from using built-up bases that our adversaries can target by moving much more rapidly.”
These landings align with USAF Chief of Staff Gen Charles Q Brown, Jr’s “Accelerate Change or Lose” strategic approach by testing and proving innovative tactics that are not typically trained for, which positions the force to outpace any potential adversary.
USAF Lt Col Gary Glojek, 354th FS commander, said: “This is a small step toward increasing our confidence in operating from austere locations. We are increasing the number of areas we can operate from to generate and deliver attack airpower by operating from dirt and pavement runways. Accelerating change is all about seizing every opportunity to move forward to increase your readiness.”
Air Force senior leaders have emphasized that ACE will play a crucial role in the future fight as the US focus shifts to near-peer competition. Training like this is critical in ensuring the 355th Wing and the total force is prepared to deter and, if necessary, defeat would-be adversaries. Glojek said: “We are ready to get within striking range and we are ready to go generate and deliver attack airpower from thousands of locations across the world. We are going to continue to get lighter, faster, more manoeuvrable and more flexible as we do that.”
Lt Col Brian Wyrzykowski, the mission commander and a KC-135 pilot assigned to the 127th Wing, Michigan Air National Guard, said: “We really would not be doing any of this without AFSOC support. This has been done overseas on roads that were made for aircraft, but this road was not made for aircraft. This really represents a new capability for the Department of Defense being able to operate off of a true highway.”
Falcone also said: “Today’s exercise not only helps the United States but also our allies and partners around the world. We are moving fast trying to advance concepts, gain increased capability to make sure the United States Air Force, the United States military and our nation as a whole is ready for whatever challenges our adversaries may present to us in the future.”