20th Attack Squadron sets new training standard at Red Flag

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Dillon White
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

More than 90 Airmen from the 20th Attack Squadron participated in Red Flag 24-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to integrate with joint and coalition combat air forces in a large force exercise, culminating in certification to return to combat operations.

The squadron, located at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, and known as the Hellhounds, or Hounds for short, is the first to bring such a large footprint to Red Flag from the 432nd Wing, tripling the previous amount of airmen and flying seven times the amount of sorties during the exercise.

“We are the beneficiaries of circumstance and a lot of planning,” said Lt. Col. Scott VanOort, 20th Attack Squadron director of operations and detachment commander for the exercise. Specifically, he was referring to the support from group and wing leadership, as well as timing in relation to the squadron’s four month out-of-combat window.

“What we just accomplished was their dream 10 years ago,” he said. “We are in the right time when it comes to our reset, prepare, certify phase -- and the Red Flag 24-1 event at the end of that. When you pull pocket aces, you go all in.”

VanOort said that the roughly 100 Airmen was a good number, but to align the squadron with Air Force Force Generation by bringing an entire squadron to an event, they hope to bring more in the future.

This will be a more likely reality when the 25th Attack Group gains an additional two attack squadrons that will soon be re-missioned from existing launch and recovery squadrons at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada.  

This addition will allow 25th ATKG units to move from 12 months in combat and four months in reconstitution, to a one-to-one dwell, with six months in combat and six months in reconstitution, allowing more time for dedicated training.

For aircrews themselves, the large-scale exercise offers training opportunities they cannot replicate at home station.

“We can only represent so much in a simulator,” said Capt. Dustin Remmenga, 20th ATKS pilot and the squadron commander’s executive officer. “We can really only represent what the MQ-9 can do in that fight. And then, even instructors can only represent so much. They can't have five instructors dedicated to one sim and one aircrew at a time making radio calls and playing all these different assets.”

Remmenga participated in Red Flag 23-1, as well as legacy squadron-only verification exercises hosted in-house in both 60 and 120-day lengths. 

“Last year we brought eight pilots and eight sensors and flew four days a week during the day,” Remmenga said. “This Red Flag, we also flew at night and participated as Red Air as well. Seeing the maturity in that… I can’t put an exact percentage or number on it, but I know for myself, I saw so much growth in what we got exposed to and what we were able to demonstrate in proficiency. It’s by far and away much better than what we even got last year, and I thought last year was pretty useful.”

VanOort referred to the squadron’s experience as high calorie training.

“The low-cal training against yesterday's fight or low-cal training with non-integrated training -- that's not the way we're going to fight the next war,” he said. “It has to be high-cal training. We are figuring out how to do that every day, we're getting better at it and there is no better environment than here.”

VanOort said throwing the Hounds in the deep end during an exercise that most of his airmen have never seen or experienced before will trigger a compounding investment.

“I can promote inside of them a dissatisfaction with where they're at with their own personal performance level,” he said.  “That motivates them to get better, and to go back and grab their friends, sit around the 3-1.MQ-9, the tactics, pubs, and really start exploring some of those high end tactics techniques and procedures and how an MQ-9 can -- or maybe shouldn't -- fight in those environments.”

Another milestone the squadron achieved was conducting every take off and landing using Satellite Launch and Recovery.

Among the crews supporting the SLR operations, was Senior Airman Frederick Petrowske, 20th Attack Squadron sensor operator. This was his first experience in a large force exercise.

“I wasn’t expecting to see as many different squadrons and as many different aircraft as I saw,” he said. “That starstruck factor was definitely seeing all the different assets together and how we integrate.”

Petrowske said he had the benefit of conducting live flight SLR training prior to arriving to Red Flag, and he and fellow sensor operators conducting SLR were leaving Red Flag leaps ahead of where they were, and attributed it to his instructor corps who traveled with them to build upon that confidence and ensure everything was executed correctly.

In addition to aircrew, the squadron brought support personnel, to include Tech. Sgt. Ryan Kimlin, 20th ATKS weather forecaster. This marked the first year the squadron brought a dedicated weather forecaster to support the exercise.

“Obviously in the weather community, more heads are better than one when it comes to looking at weather,” Kimlin said. “Everybody thinks differently and analyzes a situation differently, so it's always nice to really build that kind of teamwork with the Creech and Nellis weather folks.”

Kimlin said lightheartedly that he was a ‘guinea pig’ to see how bringing a dedicated weather forecaster would be, but that it proved valuable on several occasions.

“It all comes down to being an expert in a situation,” he said. “I find gaps, different areas, and flight levels, where we can still do our job out there. I got feedback from pilots that they liked me being here because there were some days where we would have potentially been canceled, but I made a few phone calls, collaborated, things changed a little bit, and we ended up getting people off the ground.”

Kimlin said he hopes to see more forecasters in the future participate with squadrons, highlighting the joint experience, and getting to learn about how weather impacts other airframes was invaluable.

“Now I have the knowledge of what other players are looking at for other aircraft,” he said. “I can give feedback on what flight levels are okay and that helps mission plan and hopefully get that flight level allocated to us to protect our aircraft.”

Intelligence analysts also attended the exercise and echoed the value of learning about how their counterparts supporting integrated aircraft.

“What we're trying to work on and improve is our cross-cue capability to talk with other assets,” said 1st Lt. Brooke Callaway, 20th ATKS Intelligence officer. “Getting that exposure and understanding how they operate gives us better insight into how we can utilize them while we're operating in the same area, in real time.”

Senior Airman Giovanni Toro, 20th ATKS intelligence analyst, said Red Flag allowed him to become more flexible and build upon the work they do at a unit level.

“It is 10 times calmer in a simulator versus in real life where you have dozens of people on the comms at one time as well as the different briefs that we have to say into or for mass brief. The added information that they have for real flight versus a simulated one, especially considering all of the other additional players from Coalition forces and different airframes for different missions. It's a much more detailed mastery.”

Toward the end of Red Flag, the Hounds gathered in an auditorium to provide their certification brief to Col. Nicholas Pederson, 432nd Wing commander. Following the brief, the Airmen lined the front of the stage and responded to questions, recounting what they learned and offered ideas on how to build upon their experience during future iterations by sharing their lessons learned with other squadrons.

The event marked an ending for an exercise, a beginning for a new training paradigm, but also a continuation of the intent of Red Flag to prepare squadrons for operations they wouldn’t be able to imagine and ensure aircrews arrive to a fight prepared.