First, some bad news.
A low-key military competition called an air mobility rodeo that used to pull airmen to Joint Base Lewis-McChord from as far away as Pakistan and Israel is not returning to the South Sound next year or ever.
Now, some better news.
The rodeo is gone, but it’s going to be replaced by a large-scale exercise that may again bring airmen from dozens of countries to JBLM for realistic military training in Northwest skies.
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The new exercise, scheduled for the summer of 2017, is going by the name “Mobility Guardian.” It’s designed to let the cargo crews and refueling jets that make up the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command test themselves in an elaborate, 10-day exercise that would mimic both an armed conflict and delivery of humanitarian relief.
The exercise also likely will draw on Army paratroopers, Navy fighter jets and resources from foreign allies who’ve been invited to participate. All of those resources would be in play in a military response to actual disaster.
“We’ll train like we fight,” said Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II, the commander of Air Mobility Command.
The rodeo was a much-loved event that let air crews from around the world compete against each other in drills that would test how well they cared for wounded soldiers to how fast they could safely unload a 174-foot-long C-17 Globemaster III cargo jet.
We’ll train like we fight.
Gen. Carlton D. Everhart II
The popular competition took place every other year, bringing air crews from about 20 countries each time to JBLM. Aside from the contests, airmen tended to enjoy the rodeo because they were encouraged to socialize with each other in their downtime. Teams from different countries would set up tents and invite visitors in to talk about their home countries or chat about their work.
JBLM last hosted an air mobility rodeo in 2011. The Air Force tended to schedule rodeos in odd years while bringing civilian-friendly air shows to JBLM in even years.
Budget cuts prompted the Air Force to cancel rodeos in 2013 and 2015. Similarly, the Air Force has not held an air show at JBLM since 2012, although one is scheduled for the weekend of Aug. 27.
Former Air Mobility Command Commander Gen. Darren McDew hinted there would be changes to the rodeo program when he canceled the one scheduled for last year.
“During these challenging times, we need to be good stewards of our very limited funds and our airmen’s time,” McDew said last year. “It’s unfortunate, but given the circumstances, this is the right decision. We’re looking forward to the possibilities of tailoring future rodeo events, to ensure we’re getting the most training and international partnership building value from this event.”
Harold Rice, the chief of exercises for Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, said the new program would resemble the kind of international military exercises that the Pentagon uses to strengthen partnerships with its allies, just in case they may need to collaborate in a real emergency one day.
During these challenging times, we need to be good stewards of our very limited funds and our airmen’s time.
Gen. Darren McDew
Air Mobility Command cargo jets and refueling tankers regularly participate in those exercises but rarely get to shape them around their priorities. Usually, they’re in a support role helping ground troops practice combat drills.
“We haven’t seen an exercise this large (for Air Force mobility crews) in years,” Rice said.
The exercise likely will feature an airdrop that would replicate how the military would take over a runway in hostile territory. JBLM hosts a couple of Army units that regularly train for that kind of high-risk attack, such as an Army Ranger battalion and the 1st Special Forces Group.
After the runway attack, different groups of airmen then would be charged with securing the air strip and turning it into a hub for U.S. jets. Later, the exercise would play out how crews would deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians.
Rice said the exercise likely would unfold at several locations around the Northwest. Navy jets would fly in from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and refueling tankers would come from Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane. The military also likely would make use of a runway at Moses Lake. Up to 50 jets likely would participate out of JBLM.
“Everybody’s going to play,” Rice said, meaning that South Sound residents might see an unusual mix of jets flying around the region in addition to the C-17s that are stationed here.
The Air Force envisions Mobility Guardian as a recurring exercise, but it may not always take place at JBLM. In some instances, it could take place in foreign countries.
“We would love to keep it up there (at JBLM). We have all kinds of facilities up there, but just to keep it relevant and efficient, we’re looking at the possibility of having it in different locations,” Rice said.