(Corey Dickstein) More than a dozen fighter jets arrived Friday at the Savannah Combat Readiness Training Center, taking their places along the Georgia Air National Guard installation’s newly upgraded flight line.
In the coming days, about three dozen additional fighter jets from across the country will join the 13 F-16C Fighting Falcons flown to the Savannah CRTC from Vermont, as the center hosts its largest-ever military training exercise throughout February.
The massive operation called Sentry Savannah 2014 will include air-to-air combat training just off Georgia and South Carolina’s Atlantic coast as well as air-to-ground weapons practice at Townsend Bombing Range in McIntosh County, organizers said Friday.
Ultimately, the exercise — that will include the F-16s, F-22 Raptors, F/A-18 Hornets, F-15 Strike Eagles and surveillance and cargo aircraft — will present pilots, commanders and support personnel the opportunity to train in a war-like atmosphere, said Air Force Maj. Merrick Baroni, the air combat training officer in charge.
“The primary thing I’m in charge of is making sure that the quality of training for all of our warriors that come in here to train is adequate and replicated to what they would be doing downrange … in an actual wartime environment,” Baroni said. “The reason all these airmen and their aircraft are coming here to Savannah is so that they can practice training in an over-water, joint (service), maritime operation that’s exactly like it would be in war.”
Mondays through Fridays throughout the month, troops will work about 12 hours a day, spending much of that time in the air followed by debriefings that Baroni likened to watching film after a football game.
Data will be collected by computer systems on each of the jets during the air battles off the Savannah coast. Technicians will be able to pinpoint exactly how pilots reacted to certain scenarios, allowing the troops to perfect the missions.
“This great technology allows us to go out there, practice that mission and when we come back we play all of our tapes and we review exactly what happened — the play-by-play — out on the field,” the major said. “We can isolate exactly where things went right or wrong and we can improve our tactics so when we do it for real, when we’re really having to operate in this joint environment we know we’re giving it our best effort, because we’ve practiced it.”
With support from Georgia air guardsmen and the Washington, D.C.-based National Guard Bureau, Sentry Savannah will also include Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps troops from Vermont, Hawaii, Florida and South Carolina.
The Savannah CRTC, one of four such Air National Guard training centers in the nation, counts its location among its many assets, said Air Force Col. Thomas Grabowski, the installation’s commander.
“What we bring to the table here is our proximity to the ocean where we can host a massive dogfight like we’re going to have throughout February, as well as our ability to work with our joint partners — with the Navy and with the Marines in Beaufort,” Grabowski said. “The real key is that these guys are going to get out there for this exercise with 1,000 people and multiple types of aircraft, and they’re going to be able to train in a realistic, cost-effective setting that will prepare them for their next tasking.”
It’s not an opportunity fighter jet pilots often get, said Air Force Lt. Col. Chris Rachael, who works at the CRTC and also flies F-16s with the South Carolina Air National Guard.
“Normally from your home station you’re doing small-scale training flights,” Rachael said. “An event like this allows us to go out and interact with other (aircraft) platforms and see how other platforms operate. It brings a whole other dimension that adds to the realism when you’ve got such a large group that is operating at essentially full-speed in a combat-like environment.”
Sentry Savannah, Grabowski said, is intended to become an annual event that could grow larger in the future. Not only does the operation provide great training to the troops involved, but it also could provide a boost to the local economy as the 1,000 personnel involved will have plenty of downtime to spend in the city, he said.
And while the noisy jets flying often over the Coastal Empire for the next 30 days may provide somewhat of a nuisance to locals, Grabowski said, the training is necessary to prepare troops who could at any time be deployed to a war zone.
“This is a great opportunity to showcase Savannah and showcase the Combat Readiness Training Center here in Savannah as we bring in guest units from all around the country to show what this area has to offer,” Grabowski said. “We know the skies over Savannah will be noisy over the next 30 days, but we like to refer to that as the sound of freedom.”
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