Vermont Air Guard Tests Weapon Systems in Florida Exercises

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Richard Mekkri,
  • 158th Fighter Wing

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. - More than 175 Airmen and a dozen F-35 Lighting IIs from Vermont’s 158th Fighter Wing joined Airmen, Marines, Soldiers and Sailors from across the country for three weeks to participate in the Weapons System Evaluation Program and Checkered Flag exercises at Tyndall Air Base, Florida.

“We are participating in two exercises concurrently,” said Senior Master Sgt. Douglas Lamay, 158th Fighter Wing Fabrication Element Supervisor and maintenance group noncommissioned officer in charge of the exercises for the VTANG. “The purpose of (the) mission is to give our pilots an opportunity to fire live missiles at air-to-air targets, which is not a common opportunity for our pilots.”

Lamay said the WSEP team uses data collected from the missile shoots to improve weapons systems and evaluate the effectiveness and reliability of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons systems. After the WSEP portion, the teams pivot to the second part of their training.

“The afternoon go is for Checkered Flag,” said Lamay. “Which is a large-force exercise involving fourth and fifth gen. aircraft from the Guard, Air Force, Navy and Marines. This is a capstone event that allows our pilots and our maintenance teams to integrate with other units in a training environment that simulates a combat environment.”

Checkered Flag involves multiple large-force exercises where 60 to 70 fighter jets take to the skies. Half act as U.S. and allied forces to defend; the remainder represent real-world threats such as near-peer adversaries.

“This is the first time our pilots are actually going to see a missile come off of their aircraft,” said Capt. Alex Nielsen, a pilot assigned to the 134th Fighter Squadron, Vermont Air National Guard and project officer for Checkered Flag and WESP. “We’re here so they get that real-world experience, building confidence so that the first time they (fire their weapons) isn’t in a combat situation.”

All participants had multiple opportunities to test their abilities during weather unlike what they typically experience in Vermont.

“The weather certainly is a factor,” said Nielsen. “The weather in combat will be a factor as well. We are lucky in Vermont to not have the same level of thunderstorms, a tornado warning and evacuation warnings.”

The exercises are taking place on and around an installation still in development after Category 5 Hurricane Michael devastated the area in 2018. Lamay said the challenges have not sidetracked the Airmen from meeting their goals.

“Due to the construction, the base and work area have a deployed-location-feel that is helping our first-term Airmen get a feel for what it could be like while deployed,” said Lamay. “The integration with fourth and fifth generation assets from Air Force components and sister services simulate a joint environment and the wing’s focus on deployability, survivability and interoperability all have applications in these training scenarios.”