An F-16 Fighting Falcon’s radar warning emits an eerie, distinct pattern as the jet soars over the Northern Pacific Ocean, moving closer and closer toward hostile territory. The warning tone means one thing — missiles are inbound.
This can end one of two ways: a surface-to-air missile, or SAM, rips through the jet, or the enemy radar SAM site is rendered useless.
This intense training scenario is the new norm for 35th Fighter Wing pilots here as it provides the most effective real-life training they have encountered in more than 50 years here.
A team effort between the U.S. Air Force and the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force has brought this robust simulated combat environment to the fight, implementing field training exercises for both U.S. and joint forces and setting the stage for large force employment training.
The 35th FW is home of the Wild Weasel, the only Suppression of Enemy Air Defense, or SEAD, assets in the Pacific Air Forces theater.
Previous SEAD training was primarily executed during biannual Red Flag exercises which have since been suspended due to recent Department of Defense budget constraints.
Although in its early stages, the capabilities this training provides can be monumental, said Capt. Chris Behrens, the 35th FW weapons systems commander, adding that the wing has been actively moving in this direction for some time now.
“It’s good both ways — (JGSDF) get to defend themselves and simulate shooting at F-16s, and they have a great time doing that, and we get to react and simulate shooting back at them,” Behrens said.
The JGSDF allows pilots to track and identify emitters put out from Japanese SAM sites, which helps pilots learn how to save their jet while simulating shooting back.
As a result of this joint effort, these types of defensive exercises now have the capability to take place daily, whereas previous operations were limited to only a few times a year abroad or were entirely simulated.
“Pilots would literally tell their wingmen, ‘Hey, you’re being targeted,’ Behrens said about previous training. “Instead, now we actually have a missile site simulating shooting at us and showing up on our real-life systems so we can react and simulate engaging.”
Pilots’ access to the Gaicho airspace, an area over the Northern Pacific Ocean that connects the airspace over the ocean to the mainland, is a critical ingredient that has accelerated the training process.
The Gaicho airspace hosts an area known as Draughon Range, a location where pilots are authorized to drop live ordnance.
“This airspace allows us to train for our full Wild Weasel mission, using real targets to drop bombs for realistic training and mission employment,” said Capt. Thomas Mueller, the 35th Operations Support Squadron chief of wing training. “We will fly every type of mission here and use it regularly.”
The benefits of this addition have already made their mark, said Lt. Col. Dave Lyons, the 35th OSS commander.
The acquisition of this airspace has had the biggest impact on 35th FW combat training since the arrival of the F-16 at Misawa AB, he added.
It’s an asset that serves a dual purpose.
“Japanese air and ground forces benefit greatly as well, as the Gaicho airspace connects Bravo airspace to these SAM emitters, allowing the JGSDF to train on real air threats too,” Mueller said. “Training against real threats will increase the capability of both Japanese and U.S. forces.”
“This may be the most important thing that has happened here in the last 20 years,” Behrens said. “We now have some great training moving forward to continue to be the best.”