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Four teams one fight: RF-A 21-1 comes to a close

A U.S. Army M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) launches ordnance during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 at Fort Greely, Alaska, Oct. 22, 2020. This exercise focuses on rapid infiltration and exfiltration to minimize the chance of a counterattack. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Beaux Hebert)

A U.S. Army M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) launches ordnance during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 at Fort Greely, Alaska, Oct. 22, 2020. This exercise focuses on rapid infiltration and exfiltration to minimize the chance of a counterattack. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Beaux Hebert)

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Jeremy Waggoner, Jr., a Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 232 plane captain, stands by as a pilot prepares to taxi during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Oct 20, 2020.

U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Jeremy Waggoner, Jr., a Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 232 plane captain, stands by as a pilot prepares to taxi during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Oct 20, 2020. The VMFA-232 was one of two U.S. Marine Corps units to participate in the first joint RF-A of the year. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jose Miguel T. Tamondong)

Tech. Sgt. Theodore Crowely, III, a 354th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron F-35A Lightning II dedicated crew chief, checks for debris prior to launch during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Oct. 19, 2020. RED FLAG-Alaska exercises are focused on improving the combat readiness of the U.S. and international forces and providing for units preparing for air and space expeditionary force taskings. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Beaux Hebert)

Tech. Sgt. Theodore Crowely, III, a 354th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron F-35A Lightning II dedicated crew chief, checks for debris prior to launch during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Oct. 19, 2020. RED FLAG-Alaska exercises are focused on improving the combat readiness of the U.S. and international forces and providing for units preparing for air and space expeditionary force taskings. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Beaux Hebert)

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jarrett Dittenber, a 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) forward observer, sits by his gear during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, Oct. 15, 2020.

U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Jarrett Dittenber, a 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company (ANGLICO) forward observer, sits by his gear during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, Oct. 15, 2020. The JPARC airspace covers more than 77,000 square miles and provides a realistic training environment, allowing Airmen to train from individual skills to complex, large-scale joint engagements. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jose Miguel T. Tamondong)

A U.S. Navy aircraft mechanic assigned to the Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 132 marshals an EA-18G Growler during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Oct. 13, 2020. The EA-18G is an advanced airborne electronic attack aircraft, capable of operating from an aircraft carrier as well as land-bases. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Beaux Hebert)

A U.S. Navy aircraft mechanic assigned to the Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 132 marshals an EA-18G Growler during RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Oct. 13, 2020. The EA-18G is an advanced airborne electronic attack aircraft, capable of operating from an aircraft carrier as well as land-bases. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Beaux Hebert)

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --

“30 seconds, 10 seconds, 5 seconds, 3…2…1...hack. Welcome to debrief.” 

With that, the 353rd Combat Training Squadron concluded RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 signifying the end of RF-A 2020 season.

This final exercise, which occurred Oct. 8-23, saw the return of U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and Army partners amidst COVID-19 making it the first joint RF-A of the year.

“Each of our sister services brings a unique capability to the fight,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Christopher Ellsworth, the RF-A 21-1 team chief. “Every additional service and unit we have here boosts the quality of the training for everyone.”

At first glance, the training scenarios seem completely separate— the jets take care of their business in the airspace and ground forces take their missions to the training range. But a key component and benefit of RF-A exercises is that everything connects. 

“Our primary focus is to work on that joint integration which is how we actually fight. We have flying units as well as ground forces and we’re integrating as much as we can with our mission planning, our execution and mission debriefing,” Ellsworth said.

Charged with ensuring the exercise went according to plan, U.S. Air Force Col. Jared Hutchinson, the RF-A 21-1 Deployed Forces commander, saw firsthand how each branch contributed to the overall success of the exercise.

“Every service brings valued capability and a commodity to the fight, and the joint approach is truly the only way to success,” he said. “One of the highlights from RED FLAG-Alaska 21-1 was successfully executing joint integration tactics, techniques, and procedures with F-35A fifth generation aircraft. It is a testament to the strength of integration efforts from the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps units.”

The air and ground scenarios are designed to challenge participants and push them to their limits; but being in Alaska in October brought another layer of difficulty as they watched temperatures drop from a cool 55 degrees Fahrenheit at the start of the exercise to below zero in a matter of days.

“The colder temperatures and overall challenging weather phenomena pushed our aircraft and maintenance capabilities to the limits,” Hutchinson said. “As always, though, our maintenance professionals executed at a fantastic pace and maneuvered effectively to overcome any obstacle they encountered. They are the backbone to our ability to project airpower at a moment’s notice.”

Weather aside, the exercise season, like the rest of the world, was thrown for a loop because of COVID-19, and a temporary stop movement order early in the pandemic contributed to the cancellation of the first two iterations this year. Committed to resuming training operations planning teams gathered virtually to map out the way forward and keep traveling members and the home station community safe.

“COVID-19 has been a factor for this exercise but it’s not keeping us from training and making it a quality exercise,” Ellsworth said. “We’ve been working really hard here at CTS to ensure that.”

And according to Hutchinson, it paid off.

“The exercise went extremely well. The professionalism of every service member across the board was evident and absolutely a pleasure to witness each day,” he said. “Enhanced combat readiness of all participating forces is always the goal, and I can say without a doubt that we showcased that capability over the past few weeks.”

With the 2020 exercise season behind them, Ellsworth and his fellow RF-A planners are already hard at work getting ready for next year. There may be unpredictable challenges ahead but everything still moves forward. The only thing that is certain in the world of RF-A is that the training will not stop.