New urban close air support training facility is on the Powder River Training complex range. (photo by Jack Siebold)
Ellsworth Air Force Base B-1 bomber crews, with a little help from South Dakota’s Army National Guard, bring their work home … from Afghanistan.
Bomber crews will soon be “boning” up on close air support missions over Afghan villages, right here in South Dakota.Of course, the village has to be built first.About the only things that make the site even resemble a military facility are a few warning signs, a little barbed wire and a massive communications tower.You have to squint to envision the steel shipping containers as Afghan mud homes and overlook the village walls can be stepped over.
But when the Air Force is done, this will be a state of the art Urban Close Air Support training site were bomber and fighter crews will learn to protect soldiers while at the same time, limit civilian deaths.
It is a training facility the Ellsworth bomber crews need.”It’s extremely important for us to have something like this for training,” Lt. Col. Richard Greenman, an Ellsworth B-1 pilot, said.“It’s such a complicated situation, trying to support troops on the ground.There’s a lot of confusion during attacks so the more training you have, the better.”
Greenman, director of operations for the 28th Operations Support Squadron, knows this from personal experience.He’s flown combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan on two separate tours; and then served two more Afghanistan tours with the Army.
“When we have a training area like this we can actually simulate noncombatants, enemy combatants and friendly combatants all at the same time so we can practice actually distinguishing those different things.And we can also have different simulators like the improvised explosive devices and all those kinds of things that might be a danger to our troops,” Greenman explained.“The aircrews can really get practice distinguishing what is what on a battlefield.”
The mock Afghan village, 20 miles northwest of Belle Fourche, is part of the Powder River Training Complex that uses electronics rather than actual munitions.The village site is about 15 acres overall, on Bureau of Land Management land that butts against couple of ranches.There used to be an old missile site there, as well as an old B-52 strategic range, the forerunner to today’s Power River Complex.
Having the urban close air support training in Ellsworth’s backyard, rather than one of the other ranges across the country, saves valuable time.A B-1 crew can be on the range in 15 minutes instead of a couple of hours; saving precious flying hours, gas and taxpayer dollars.It also will be used by B-52 bombers as well as fighters but Greenman could not say if Ellsworth MQ-9 Reaper squadron drones would use the site for training.
There might even be Army involvement at times.Since the missions are close air support, it stands to reason that sometime in the future, actual ground troops will be added to the training scenarios, giving both the bomber crews and the soldiers more realistic CAS training.“We will have the teams out here, simulated enemy firing,” Greenman said.“They will set up situations that look like a regular attack scenario where you have to try and distinguish the combatants from the noncombatants.A big part of this training is the aircrews and the ground crews exercising their rules of engagements.”
South Dakota’s 842nd Engineers did the initial work on the 15–acre site during the annual Golden Coyote training exercise.”We punched in the road and we made the road as close to a duplicate Afghan road,” Sgt. First Class Blaine Anderson, 842nd, said.“We also put in the replicas of the walls.They are big enough where they will provide a radar signature.”
At the same time, other guard units pitched in, bringing the 17 shipping containers from North Dakota.“When the Air Force gets done,” Anderson said, “they will look very similar to the mud houses that the Afghans live in.”
As the site is developed, it will more closely resemble a typical village with a bazaar, irrigation ditches and farmer fields; as well as about 17 homes.But air crews won’t see it with the naked eye.”We don’t use our actual eyes to find targets.We have different sensors on board; basically television cameras, radar.”
Those eyes in the sky give soldiers on the ground an edge.
“We’ve been doing this mission for quite some time in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Greenman added.“We are very proficient at it now.Of course, we always have new crews coming in that need the training.We have some veteran crews, we have some beginner crews.It’s always good to get that extra training.”