Anyone driving down U.S. 378 past Shaw Air Force Base last week saw a rare sight – all three F-16 squadrons of the 20th Fighter Wing at home at the same time, but perhaps not for long.
With the return of the 77th Fighter Squadron, the Gamblers, from the Middle East in April, the wing was able to conduct a two-day combat readiness exercise last week called Weasel Victory 15-06. Wild Weasel is a nickname for any aircraft designed to take out an enemy’s radar or other ground targets, which is the wing’s primary mission.
The exercise tested the wing’s readiness to transition from peacetime training to combat – an inspection that means another deployment to the Middle East or Afghanistan could be coming up soon.
“They don’t stay home long,” said Steven Creech, a former Sumter mayor who is a member of the S.C. Military Base Task Force.
“The wing has the most modern F-16s in the world, and they are in high demand,” he said. “They are trying to make sure the ‘A’ game is ready all the time. That’s how you keep accidents from happening.”
“Between exercises, the Pacific and everything that is going on in the Middle East, we can expect a deployment any time,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. William “Dutch” Holland, a former commander of U.S. Air Force Central, headquartered at Shaw, which plans and executes operations in the Middle East and southwest Asia.
“They are the Air Force’s tip-of-the-spear wing, so they are going to go,” he said. “That’s why readiness exercises like this are so important.”
Wing commander Col. Stephen Jost, in an exclusive interview with The State newspaper, would not discuss deployment schedules or destinations. But he said the exercise was needed to ensure combat readiness.
“We’re obviously a hard combat wing, there’s no surprise there,” he said. “Although here at home Shaw may look like Sleepy Hollow, we do a lot of training as a force-providing wing.
“We provide combat-ready air power and airmen to meet any challenge anytime, anywhere,” he said. “This wing covers a broad spectrum of potential conflicts that we might have to deal with.”
Shaw integral to recent wars
Shaw Air Force Base has been playing a key role in the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria.
The 20th Fighter Wing has deployed more than 8,000 airmen to the Middle East and Afghanistan off and on since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Also, Shaw is home to both U.S. Army Central and U.S. Air Forces Central. The two commands continue to plan, equip and supply the ground and air wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. They are the Army and Air Force component of U.S. Central Command, headquartered in Tampa, Fla.
In October, the 77th Fighter Squadron was deployed for six months as part of Operation Inherent Resolve to bomb targets of the increasingly powerful Islamic State, or ISIS, which is surging in several Middle Eastern countries. The previous overseas deployment by a fighter wing from Shaw was a six-month tour by the 55th Fighter Squadron to South Korea. It ended in September 2013.
On Nov. 30, Capt. William H. “Pryo” DuBois, 30, of New Castle, Colo., was killed when his F-16 “Fighting Falcon” crashed in a non-combat-related incident.
The location of the crash was not disclosed because of host nation sensitivities, an Air Force official told The State. But a report from CNN, citing an unnamed U.S. official, said the crash happened in Jordan. That report also said the jet was returning to the base because it was suffering from maintenance problems.
The Unites States is continuing air attacks intended to degrade ISIS’s ability to fight. That means the wing likely will be employed again against ISIS.
Jost wouldn’t comment on destinations, but said all deployments can be a challenge.
“It’s very rewarding to know that we can go out and be useful in many different capacities,” the wing commander said.
‘It’s a team effort’
Deployments usually are done in rotations, said Jost, a self-proclaimed Air Force “brat” born at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota who entered the Air Force Academy at 17.
Typically, at any one time, one Shaw squadron is deployed. Another has returned and is being refitted. A third is in hard training for the next deployment.
“One of the good things about having all three squadrons home is we can focus on some of those big training exercises that are so important to our readiness,” Jost said.
When a squadron is deployed, for instance to the Middle East, it is turned over to a command in the field. Jost remains at Shaw. It’s called being “chopped” from your home base.
There are about 24 F-16 jets in each squadron, but each has a support and maintenance contingent of about 200 airmen. Jost said that thousands back up those airmen.
“The focus often in a fighter wing is the pilots,” he said. “But there are so many other different aspects of a fighter wing. Combat support folks, security personnel, communications personnel, civil engineers. You name it. There are lots of folks in different areas that don’t get the spotlight that my pilots and maintainers do.
“It’s a team effort.”
Components of the 20th Fighter Wing
Here are the units
▪ 20th Operations Group
▪ 55th Fighter Squadron
▪ 77th Fighter Squadron
▪ 79th Fighter Squadron
▪ 20th Operations Support Squadron
▪ 20th Maintenance Group
▪ 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron
▪ 20th Component Maintenance Squadron
▪ 20th Equipment Maintenance Squadron
▪ 20th Maintenance Operations Squadron
▪ 20th Mission Support Group
▪ 20th Contracting Squadron
▪ 20th Security Forces Squadron
▪ 20th Force Support Squadron
▪ 20th Logistics Readiness Squadron
▪ 20th Communications Squadron
▪ 20th Civil Engineering Squadron
▪ 20th Medical Group
▪ 20th Medical Operations Squadron
▪ 20th Aeromedical Squadron
▪ 20th Dental Squadron
▪ 20th Medical Support Squadron