2022 Bulls over the Rockies
Updated: Jan 8
In July the RNLAF 336 Squadron flew three of their four legacy C-130Hs to Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado, to execute exercise Mountain Bull. Frank Visser visited the squadron during the exercise and spoke with the Commander of 336 Squadron and his American counterpart.
The 336 Squadron operates the C-130H-30 since 1994 and bought two extra C-130H in 2007 conducts air transport all over the world. It is primarily tasked by the European Air Transport Command, which is also based at Eindhoven Air Base. However, since 2012 the squadron has been working hard on building up their tactical airlift capabilities. For the members of 336 Squadron the tactical mindset means to be able to rapidly and successfully operate in or near a theatre of operations, where the keyword is integration between them as a supporting unit and other supported units both nationally and internationally. Since 2014, 336 Squadron has a strategic partnership with the 11th Air Manoeuvre Brigade (AMB). This brigade consists of the helicopters of the Defence Helicopter Command and the 11th Air Assault Brigade of the Royal Netherlands Army (RNLA). A leap forward took place in 2017 when the unit for the first time in history participated in that’s year edition of the Fighter Weapons Instructor Training, held at Leeuwarden Air Base, with its own Transport Weapons Instructor Course (TWIC). This resulted in the first weapon instructors in the Dutch C-130 community. In the following years the squadron developed itself to a high standard tactical airlift squadron, which can operate anywhere in the world. Tactical training is essential, like operating in warm and cold environment, landing at dirt strips and dropping cargo and flying in mountainous terrain.
When Lt. Col. Maurice “Skunk” Schonk took office on September 2, 2020 as commander of 336 Squadron, he already had the idea to set up an integrated exercise, to train operations in mountainous terrain. Peterson Space Force Base (SFB) near Colorado Springs soon came into view, as this was familiar territory to him. While he was still flying the F-16, he once made a stopover there and gained an impression of this location. That is why he asked his American C-130 exchange pilot at 336 Squadron to investigate whether this location and any other locations near the Rocky Mountains
would be suitable for the exercise Mountain Bull 2022. It was soon concluded that Peterson SFB was a suitable place to practice all facets of mountain flying. His contacts within the F-16 community also played an important role and he quickly re-established existing contacts with the 120th Fighter Squadron (FS) of the Colorado Air National Guard, operating the F-16C/D from nearby Buckley SFB. In May 2021, contacts at Peterson SFB were asked if 336 Squadron could use their location for exercise Mountain Bull and the 302nd Airlift Wing (AW) of the Air Force Reserve at Peterson SFB and the 120th FS at Buckley SFB were asked to participate in this exercise. After they had responded positively, an official request followed from the Dutch embassy in Washington, DC. At that time, 336 Squadron was already busy preparing for the upcoming deployment to Mali (see AFM August 2022) and in August it also took part in Operation Allies Refuge, to assist in the evacuation of Afghans from Kabul International Airport in Afghanistan. Lt. Col. Schonk flew to Afghanistan in mid-August with two RNLAF C-130Hs. After he returned, he left for Colorado at the beginning of October, together with a group of colleagues from the RNLAF and RNLA to conduct a large site survey. The aim was to assess the Peterson SFB location and other locations in the area, such as Fort Carson and to estimate which missions could be trained. Numerous questions had to be answered, such as: What does the environment look like and which flying areas does 336 Squadron have at its disposal? At which locations Container Delivery System (CDS) and para-drops would take place and which dirt strips 336 Squadron could be used?
The July weather in Colorado also proved to be challenging. During this period, heavy thunderstorms and rain showers occur almost daily in the afternoon. But especially the hailstorms were a cause for concern. These mainly occur when the wind comes from the polar region. With a prewarning, the planes could be flown to a safe area in time, in order to prevent damage to the aircraft. Despite these possible weather conditions, it became clear shortly after the survey was completed that Peterson SFB was the most suitable location for the exercise and Great Falls in Montana was dropped for good. This was mainly due to the absence of dirt strips and mountains in the immediate vicinity. The deployment of ANG F-16s would also require more planning. Further preparations could continue despite COVID, although one question remained open. How soon would all the equipment return to the Dutch squadron after completing their mission in Mali in May 2022. After this question was answered the squadron worked towards the day of departure to Colorado. At the end of June, three of the four legacy C-130Hs left Eindhoven Airbase for Peterson SFB in Colorado.
Two C-130s were extended Hercules type C-130H-30 and the third was a C-130H. Via Keflavik Airport in Iceland, the aircraft flew on to Gander International Airport on the east coast of Canada, before continuing their flight to Duluth International Airport in Minnesota and from there making their final leg to Peterson SFB. The return flight on July 24 was via Chicago O'Hare International Airport in Illinois, Pease AFB in New Hampshire, Keflavik Airport, before returning to Eindhoven Airbase on July 26.
Exercise and goals
The exercise started on July 5 and the detachment consisted of about 110 men from the RNLAF Air Mobility Command (AMC). The largest part of the detachment were members of 336 Squadron and consisted of aircrews, maintenance, logistics, staff, Intell, etc. The other part of the detachment consisted of members of the Dutch Defense Para School, part of the RNLA. This school provides all parachute training within the Dutch armed forces. In addition, RNLA members of the 11th AMB, Pathfinders and Special Forces and Belgium Army paratroopers were also part the detachment. The total detachment always fluctuated around 200 members. American units also took part in this integrated exercise.
These were the 302nd AW stationed at Peterson SFB, part of the US Air Force Reserve that also operates the C-130H, and the 120th FS of Buckley SFB, a Colorado Air National Guard squadron operating the F-16C. The US Army participated in Mountain Bull with the 10th Special Forces Group from nearby Fort Carson. The tactical challenge for 336 Squadron and also the purpose of their exercise was to operate tactically at height day and night, with warm weather conditions in mountainous terrain and with enemy threats. The tactical missions consisted of low-level flights and the landing and take-off from dirt strips in order to move personnel and cargo. Two dirt strips were used for this, called: Red Devil and Pinon. Also, day and night paradropping’s were practiced with Special Forces at low altitude via static line, and high altitude via the ramp door of the C-130s. Another important part that was practiced were the droppings of CDS. This was done both ballistically, where CDS was dropped with a parachute, and with the Joint Precision Airdrop System (JPADS). The JPADS uses a GPS and steerable parachutes. A computer sends the parachutes to the predetermined location.
The computer, which is connected to satellites, takes into account all kinds of facets, such as: air pressure, wind velocity and temperature. The CDS and JPADS drops were done both day and night and at different altitudes. In order to train as realistically as possible, Dutch ground troops were deployed to simulate air threats, such as the Russian man-portable air defense missile systems SA-14, -16 and -18. To be able to withstand this threat, two of the three C-130Hs of 336 Squadron were equipped with an ALQ-131, electronic counter measures pod under each wing.
Another threat were the F-16s of the 120th FS in the role of enemy fighters (Red Air). The aim was to train 336 Squadron aircrews in Fighter Fundamentals, so that they could dodge shots from an F-16s for as long as possible. In addition to this Red Air role, the F-16s also performed the Blue Air role. C-130s, protected by the friendly F-16s, could fly into enemy territory and, for example, carry out droppings (CDS and para), or dirt strip landings and deliver or pick up personnel and cargo. In Mountain Bull's final week, seven F-16s from the 120th FS took part in missions, four of which were Blue Air and three Red Air.
The 302nd AW flew several missions with 336 Squadron, during which formation flying was practiced, aligning the American standard with the Dutch standard. Because the RNLAF C-130 pilots are trained in America, these standards do not differ much from each other. In general, the Dutch lead the mission with the Americans C-130Hs, because they also had a better weather radar than the Americans. Lt. Col. Schonk: ”My specific goals with this exercise were to train all aircrews in day low level operations in the mountains, maximum performance day and night on short runways and Fighter Fundamentals.” He continues: “We already train sufficiently in the Netherlands for all other matters, such as CDS and paradropping.”
302nd AW perspective
As this was the first integrated exercise with the RNLAF executed from Peterson SFB the 302ndAW at Peterson SFB was intensively involved in the planning, participation and execution of this exercise. Therefore, planning this exercise started in 2021.
Its current commander Col. DeAnna K. Franks explains: “Coordination between the RNLAF and 302nd AW started 18 months prior to execution. In that time the Dutch came to Peterson SFB three different times for site surveys. I took on the position as the new Operations Group Commander in October 2021, one of my first engagements on the job was during the second site survey with the planning team in Colorado. Immediately, I was very impressed by the scale of the exercise and the interest to complete a large amount of mountain and formation training for the entire team.” She saw that the preparation and logistical work between her team of tacticians and maintenance personnel was operating very smoothly. Two tacticians worked directly with the Dutch team to coordinate from the beginning. This team of two grew very quickly to many representatives from operations, maintenance, aerial port and the mission support group, considering the number of RNLAF traveling to Colorado to participate in exercise Mountain Bull 2022.
Col. Franks continues: “During the planning period, the face-to-face communication was very helpful considering the large footprint of the exercise. In between the site surveys, the Colorado representatives, include Air Force and Army representatives from Fort Carson, would have phone conversations or video chats weekly to make sure everyone was working towards the same operational goals.” During the Mountain Bull exercise the RNLAF was very eager in their schedule to accomplish training with their dedicated aircraft available. Col. Franks: “I provided a welcome brief to the entire RNLAF group on their in-processing day prior to starting their flight training and acknowledged their dedication to create such a challenging and demanding training schedule for this exercise. During Mountain Bull our team from the 302nd AW flew with the Dutch on six mission days in July. The 302nd AW held meetings and tactical planning daily with Dutch operations personnel to coordinate the daily executionschedule.” While the RNLAF were engaged fully in their exercise in Colorado the 302nd AW still maintained their local daily flying requirements and other previously scheduled training and obligated travel missions. “It was a very busy time around the airport, in the training ranges, on the drop zones, at the dirt strip, and throughout the gorgeous Colorado mountains for all C-130 aircraft.” according to Col. Franks.
She is clear about the lessons learned: “Training Integrating Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs) with our international partners was crucial in prepping for the next joint fight in the world. The US and Dutch C-130 TTPs are very similar, but it really takes direct application (hands-on flying) of the integrated training for our crews to both learn and teach how we can better fly together. Even though we speak the same language, it was excellent for our crews to work through cultural and personality differences.” Another lesson learned were airspace issues during the exercise, with Denver center for high altitude airdrops. Col. Franks is sure that earlier coordination (2-3 months prior) with Denver center would have alleviated this issue. For the sheer size of the personnel and equipment footprint for the exercise the 302nd AW had to lean heavily on the active-duty personnel at Peterson SFB for their logistical help, such as; providing lodging, feeding at the dining facility, and moving equipment especially on in-processing and out-processing days of the exercise. “It was a total team effort on the ground here in Colorado to host our international partners the best we could to ensure their experience and training was successful.”: according to Col. Franks.
Lt. Col. Schonk: “The biggest lesson, which I also learned from the time I was flying the F-16, is that you go to a location where you can be supported by a unit that flies the same type of aircraft.” For example, spare parts can be used, which can be borrowed temporarily, so that the missions can still continue. He continues: ”We were very well received by Peterson SFB and were able to make optimal use of the facilities and their equipment at this airbase.” Unfortunately, 336 Squadron was confronted with COVID and this mainly affected the loadmasters. This resulted in six canceled flights. One lesson learned was the effect different dirt strips have on the tires. We will bring more tires in the future.” Another learning point was operating at high altitudes in the mountains and the effect this has on the performance of the aircraft.
Especially in the mountains, planning your route is essential, so that you always have an exit route. As a learning point, Lt. Col. Schonk also mentioned the use of Night Vision Googles. In contrast to the Netherlands, Colorado has few light sources. Lt. Col. Schonk: “A day after we stopped flying operations, we conducted an initial evaluation with all involved. A major evaluation will take place in September. Then it will be determined how the next Mountain Bull will take place better and differently.” Col. Franks: ”The more we integrate with our international partners and alliesthe better prepared we will be for a joint fight in the future. The next Mountain Bull planned in 2024 will give enough time for new personnel to participate and gain a lot of experience with multinational integration. Overall, we at the 302nd AW look forward to continuing our partnership with the RNLAF and we're excited that planning is already moving forward for the possible future engagements. We truly value the relationships and friendships we've made this summer and we know it is very important for our training and experience as well to continue working together.” Lt. Col. Schonk is certainly positive about Peterson SFB, where they want to return more often. Not only in summer but also in winter. Similarly, a Nordic Bull exercise, which will take place next year in northern Scandinavia, could possibly take place from Peterson SFB in the future. It is clear that Lt. Col. Maurice Schonk continues to focus on the best training locations for his team.
A full report was published in Combat Aircraft Journal, issue November 2022.