By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jessica Paulauskas
The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group (ABECSG) and components of its embarked air wing, Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 7, along with the U.S. Air Force 603rd Air Control Squadron and the British and Lithuanian Special Operations and Air Forces, participated in a close air support (CAS) exercise in Lithuanian airspace, May 6, 2019.
The “Jolly Rogers” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 103, one of the nine squadrons of CVW 7, coordinated with U.S. Air Force tankers for in-flight refueling during the air navigation exercise. Air-to-ground training was conducted with Lithuanian joint terminal air controllers (JTACs), a ground-control support entity.
“We are accomplishing our mission by supporting our allies and showing the world we are prepared and capable of executing missions in our allies’ airspace on short notice,” said Lt. Cmdr. Stephen Gay, a Jolly Roger pilot and coordinator of the CAS exercise.
F/A18-F Super Hornets from VFA-103 completed the training exercise, incorporating their own FAC(A), or forward air controller airborne, aircrew into the evolution. These pilots and weapons systems officers are qualified to call in support from the air and worked closely with the Lithuanian JTACs to interpret the information supplied from the ground.
“As a FAC(A) and two seat squadron, this is our bread and butter,” said Cmdr. Patrice Fernandes, commanding officer of VFA-103. “It’s what we do best, and it’s really cool that we get to train with Lithuania for this close air support exercise.”
A former JTAC instructor at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada, Gay said many students from partner nations across Europe come to train in U.S. airspace to qualify JTAC. Having both the experience of teaching and now operating with the Lithuanians in a combined exercise and with pilots from countries such as Lithuania, Sweden, and Latvia, Gay is confident that JTAC procedures are standardized and in turn improve interoperability between partner nations. Any qualified and current JTAC is recognized in more than 30 countries as being capable and authorized to perform terminal attack control.
“I’ve got a ton of confidence that if we have to work with these guys in a non-training scenario, it will be seamless,” said Gay. “If something happens and we have to respond quickly, we’ve got that integration worked out to be flawless.”
The coordination required between the ABECSG, U.S. Air Force, and Lithuanian assets is emblematic of the emphasis on partnership that has been a hallmark of U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in the region. Planners worked to manage logistics, diplomatic clearances, and overflight for the more than 1,000 miles of airspace included in the exercise.
During the valuable tactical scenario, training JTACs from Lithuanian Special Operation Forces were calling-in close air-support via voice and digital communications.
“It is so good to know that even with short-fused coordination we are able to get support from hundreds of miles away and work hand-in-hand,” says the lead Lithuanian Special Operation Forces JTAC. “The professionalism of the pilots resulted in the buildup of mutual trust and understanding between the pilot and the JTAC right away. There is no better feeling when on the ground than to understand that a fellow warrior flying from miles away is doing everything humanly possible to support you and protect friendly forces.”
He went on to say, “After the first minute, it seems as though that you’ve known that fellow warrior for a long time already. Such training events prove we are able to fight or train together anytime, anywhere. Our respect and appreciation to VFA-103 and the ABECSG and all of its components and personnel who enabled the training and brought the “Sound of Freedom” to Lithuania via the F/A18-F Super Hornets.”
Lithuania is a long-standing and valued ally whose security interests align with those of the United States. The CAS exercise with Lithuania developed and deepened the partnership between the two countries, as well as enhanced their commitment to improve their capacity to defend, deter, and when necessary, fight to protect a free and prosperous European region.
ABECSG is deployed in support of maritime security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th, U.S. 6th and U.S. 7th Fleet areas of operation. With USS Abraham Lincoln as the flagship, deployed strike group assets include staffs, ships and aircraft of Carrier Strike Group 12 (CSG 12), Destroyer Squadron 2 (DESRON 2), USS Leyte Gulf (CG 55) and Carrier Air Wing 7 (CVW 7); as well as the Àlvaro de Bazàn-class frigate ESPS Méndez Núñez (F 104).