Misawa's Draughon Range helps pilots prepare to counter North Korean threats
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 19, 2017
DRAUGHON RANGE, Japan — The seeds of victory over the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria were sown on a desolate beach in northern Japan. Now, Air Force and Navy pilots are there preparing for a more sophisticated enemy: North Korea.
Draughon Range encompasses 1,900 acres of sand dunes and forest near Misawa Air Base. It’s where Air Force and Navy pilots train to defeat enemy air defenses — a mission that would be crucial to any fight on the Korean Peninsula.
The suppression of enemy air defense, or SEAD, mission was born during the Vietnam War and has evolved to use Navy EA-18 Growlers capable of jamming enemy radar and Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons charged with destroying radar and missile launchers via precision bombing.
“We find, fix and target radars and missiles and provide access for other aircraft,” said 35th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Scott Jobe. He leads Misawa’s two squadrons of F-16s – jets that would be among the first to cross the Demilitarized Zone if a war were to happen.
North Korea, which has conducted provocative underground nuclear blasts and missile tests this year, is a primary focus for the Misawa pilots, Jobe said.
Other F-16s could conduct the mission, he added, but Misawa’s jets are the only ones in the Western Pacific that train for it.
“If called upon, we are expected to be ready to react to any threat in the region, which includes North Korea,” Jobe said. “We would go in wherever our SEAD capabilities are needed to stimulate the threats so we can locate and destroy them.”
If North Korea breaks the cease-fire — in effect on the Korean Peninsula since the Korean War ended in 1953 — Jobe said the United States would react.
“We will go in there and stimulate the threat so they look at us and shoot at us and we can shoot back,” he said.
Misawa pilots practice countering the North Korean air-defense systems daily, weather permitting, Jobe said. Growlers fly over the range, jamming radar signals sent out by training emitters while other Misawa planes play the role of enemy aircraft. The Air Force also uses computers to simulate threats.
The North Koreans are equipped with older SA-2 and SA-5 missile systems provided by the Soviets during the Cold War. They aren’t as sophisticated as those fielded by China and Russia, but are still a threat, Jobe said.
Exactly how many missiles the North Koreans have is classified; however, Jobe said they’re useless without radar.
“No matter how many missiles or launchers there are, without a guidance system they are less of a threat,” he said.
OPERATION INHERENT RESOLVE
ISIS never had much in the way of air defenses; however, the group’s fanatical fighters took brutal revenge on downed pilots, burning them alive in cages and posting videos of the killings online.
This was the threat that Misawa pilots faced when they deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014 and 2015.
Ahead of that mission, the pilots completed SERE — survival, evasion, resistance and escape — training at Draughon and were well aware of the risks of flying over enemy territory.
“There are many more threats to worry about, especially if you have to eject from your aircraft [such as] evading from the enemy, surviving in the desert landscape, coordinating for recovery,” said F-16 pilot Capt. Danielle Kangas, who deployed to the Middle East from Misawa in 2015.
To prepare pilots for the downrange missions, Misawa pilots practiced bombing with the pinpoint accuracy they’d need to strike the militants, whose positions were surrounded by civilian homes in cities such as Mosul and Raqqa.
The small bombing area at Draughon was the ideal place to train for an operation where there was also limited airspace In Iraq and Syria, the pilots dropped 100- to 1,000-pound bombs and had to be precise to minimize collateral damage, Kangas said.
The Air Force added a mosque-like building made from shipping containers and barrels to Draughon. The structure, which Misawa pilots trained to avoid, still stands in the forest, painted white to make it easy to spot from the air.
“We fly in Draughon so much, we are pretty familiar with the landscape and terrain features … downrange, we went to hundreds of different locations that we had never seen before,” he said.
The Misawa pilots also practiced strafing runs they’d need to target dismounted insurgents or vehicles. A row of red tires at the range directs pilots to a “tactical” target on the beach — a shipping container surrounded by old Humvees blasted with 20mm rounds from planes flying as low as 75 feet.
“Strafing isn’t the most common attack we do, so utilizing Draughon Range is even more important to have the ability to practice it so we remain proficient in the event we need to strafe in combat,” Kangas said.
Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, or JTACs, from around the Pacific came to Draughon to prepare for battle in Iraq and Syria. They practiced identifying the enemy from the ground, marking the targets with lasers and directing pilots over the radio.
Pilots used Draughon to simulate Middle East areas of operations and practiced coordinating with JTACs, Kangas said.
“This is basically us talking to a guy on the ground who is talking our eyes onto the target and then giving us parameters and approval to perform the attack,” he said.
There’s plenty of evidence of the effort to prepare Misawa pilots at Draughon. The beach there is littered with hundreds of bombs and impact craters where larger munitions — some as heavy as 2,000 pounds — have been dropped.
Munitions used at the range don’t pack as much punch as bombs used in combat; however, they do contain small charges so pilots can see where they land. Explosive ordnance disposal personnel render duds safe before disposing of them.
With the fight against ISIS winding down, the Misawa-based airmen are focused on their core mission: neutralizing enemy air defenses.
“A lot of the real basic training goes on here … identifying the target from the plane and flying at 350 knots and dropping bombs while communicating with people in the area,” said Joe Conley, 49, of Toledo, Ohio, a civilian contractor with Cubic Global Defense who has helped run the range since 1998.
Range workers make sure the training is safe, clearing pilots to drop bombs and talking to them by radio as they approach targets. Conley was watching in 2000 when a pilot bailed as his F-16 went down just off shore.
“It just stalled into the water and sank,” he said. “There was no explosion or anything. Everything was slow.”
The range is named after Petty Officer 3rd Class Mathew Draughon, a Navy diver who drowned trying to salvage the aircraft.
Misawa pilots flying over Syria twice won the prestigious Mackay Trophy for the “most meritorious flight of the year.” Past recipients of the award, which has been given out since 1912, include Eddie Rickenbacker, the highest-scoring American ace of World War I; and Chuck Yeager, first to break the sound barrier.
In 2014, the award went to Capt. David Kroontje and Capt. Gregory Balzhiser, who in their F-16s attacked four times 500 miles inside enemy-controlled terrain; destroyed three ISIS blockades, multiple armored vehicles and an observation post; and killed insurgents firing at Yazidi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar.
Misawa pilots helped Kurdish peshmerga fighters rescue 40,000 civilians, including women, children, elderly and sick, according to the National Aeronautical Association.
In 2015, four more Misawa fliers — Lt. Col. Jeffrey Cohen, Maj. Seth Taylor, Capt. Danielle Kangas and Capt. Mathew Park — were awarded Mackay trophies for their actions over al Hasakah in northeast Syria. Over four hours, the crews destroyed eight enemy fighting positions with no friendly or civilian casualties.