‘We need to be agile’: Spangdahlem unit trains for smaller, faster deployments

Senior Airman Courtney Farrar, a crew chief with the 52nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, performs a post-flight inspection on an F-16 Falcon during an agile combat employment exercise, March 22, 2021. The Spangdahlem-based airmen are at Ramstein to practice quickly deploying personnel and aircraft to forward locations.


By JENNIFER SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 24, 2021

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — U.S. Air Force units across Europe are training to rapidly deploy small units to foreign airfields during a crisis, using methods updated from the Cold War to deter potential Russian aggression on the Continent.

The concept now known as agile combat employment, or ACE, was regularly employed in the days of the Iron Curtain. But it’s brand new to the current generation of airmen, who are used to launching aircraft from secure home bases and during large-scale deployments, said Lt. Col. David Max, an ACE planner for U.S. Air Forces in Europe — Air Forces Africa.

“It’s a little bit of back to the future,” Max said. “I’ve talked to some of the older folks who are around, and they say, ‘We used to do this all the time … we’d just show up at each other’s airfields, no big deal.”

The 52nd Fighter Wing sent 12 F-16 fighter jets and about 100 airmen to Ramstein this week for an exercise meant to test their abilities to deploy “combat air power anytime, anyplace,” said Col. David Epperson, 52nd Fighter Wing commander.

Airmen were ordered to deploy Monday morning. By the afternoon, a busload of maintainers disembarked at Ramstein’s flight line alongside jets and tents filled with communications equipment.

Ramstein is less than a two-hour drive from Spangdahlem, and much less by fighter jet, but the wing’s options of where to pick up and go are limited by pandemic travel restrictions, officials said.

A year ago, when the wing first started practicing the concept, it set up a self-sustaining group at Spangdahlem. They learned from problems like spotty communications and forgetting to pack light bulbs for the tents.

Since then, the wing has taught airmen skills beyond their job descriptions; for example, pilots hook up hoses to refuel their jets and maintainers set up tents. That ultimately means fewer people need to deploy.

“We’ve been working hard at this for the last year and a half,” Epperson said. “This is really our opportunity to … prove everything that we’ve done and to find any holes that we have.”

Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, USAFE-AFAFRICA commander, has given wings across the command until Oct. 1 to show initial proficiency in agile combat employment, Max said. The 52nd Fighter Wing is the first in USAFE to reach the test phase.

To gauge proficiency, “we’re creating a scorecard” that looks at tasks such as “ability to disperse, the timelines, did they bring enough people … were they able to continue to fly out of those locations or was there something that prevented them from doing that?” Max said.

Airmen are used to bases where they have all their “parts, people and fuel,” he said.

But with the number of U.S. bases roughly a third of what was in Europe during the Cold War era, and adversaries able to strike across the Continent, “our bases here are no longer sanctuaries … we have big old target marks,” Max said.

“We need to be agile … there are literally hundreds of different locations we could be operating out of,” he said.

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Aircraft maintainers arrive at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, during an agile combat employment exercise, March 22, 2021. The Spangdahlem-based airmen are at Ramstein to practice quickly deploying to forward locations.