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Gunfighters: innovating since the beginning

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Connor J. Marth
  • 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The 391st and 389th Fighter Squadrons are playing pivotal roles in Operation Inherent Resolve, the Air Force’s current mission in the Southwest Asia region. More than 800 Airmen from the two squadrons spent the better part of 2016 downrange supporting the world’s leading airpower in the war on terror. Inherent Resolve isn’t their first rodeo, however. These two squadrons were among the first fighters to deploy in Operation Enduring Freedom after the terror attacks on 9/11.

With a specific focus on striking terrorist networks in Afghanistan, Enduring Freedom allowed the Gunfighters to leap into a territory that would push them to new heights as a premier fighter wing.

“After the attacks, the entire (366th Fighter Wing) went into a (Threat Condition) Delta and we were postured to fly home-defense missions over areas in the Pacific Northwest,” said Col. David Moeller, Assistant Pacific Command Commander and a former pilot assigned to the 391st. “About a week after, we started receiving deployment notices to Afghanistan. I deployed on October 12, 2001, only a few weeks after the attacks.”

Moeller explained the U.S. response efforts were fast and powerful. These decisive movements stretched the Air Forces boundaries to meet the needs of the force. Daily flying missions lasted from 10-15 hours, mission preparations lacked a comfortable amount of information and the aircrew often relied on impromptu decision making in the skies. The lack of instruction and precedent allowed the aircrews to set new bars for what defined the F-15.

“As a squadron, I would say we performed better than we had expected (in Enduring Freedom),” Moeller said. “A lot of the tactics and techniques we were performing were new. Talking to a guy on the ground and providing them close air support wasn’t something F-15s had typically done.”

The 391st and 389th Fighter Squadrons paved the way for single-role aircraft to evolve into more capable resources on the battlefield just as the original Gunfighters did in the Vietnam War.

“The old textbooks used to say the Strike Eagle didn’t perform close air support. None of the pilots had been trained to do that sort of thing, but it had to be done,” said Lt. Col. Joel Pauls, 391st Fighter Squadron commander. “For comparison, when my squadron last deployed, three months beforehand we started a very focused training plan where we did nothing but what we were expected to perform down range. At the start of Enduring Freedom, there just wasn’t time to do that.”

Without the necessary time to train their people and research their area of operation, Moeller and his fellow pilots had to think on the fly.

“It’s pretty amazing what people like Col. Moeller and his group of Gunfighters did to change the way the Strike Eagle was used downrange,” Pauls said. “If you compare what we do now to what the Tigers did back then, it’s pretty remarkable. When the nation needed them to step up, they did, and they did so very well.”

Eighteen years later, the 389th and 391st are still answering their nation’s call in Southwest Asia, but they operate differently than before.

“Today’s operations are much more intelligence-driven,” Moeller said. “We are more efficient at allocating aircraft for specific missions and we have become more effective at being able to hit the right targets.”

Pauls explained the U.S.’ presence in Southwest Asia has changed from an active invading military force to a behind-the-scenes coercion factor. The U.S.’ current goal is to build up the native militaries in the region to be able to self-sustain and control their own environments.

“(The Air Force) has gotten very good at sustained operations in the Middle East,” Pauls said. “A lot of repetition has allowed us to become more efficient and accurate as a community.”

A community that has been fighting together since the beginning.

“The Gunfighters were kind of the go-to wing in the opening stages of Enduring Freedom,” Moeller said. “They were the ones immediately delivering airpower over Afghanistan and they are still delivering that airpower today.”