ÄMARI AIR BASE, Estonia --
The Maryland National Guard deployed their largest presence ever in Estonia when 10 A-10C Thunderbolt II aircraft and over 270 Airmen from the Maryland Air National Guard participated in a flying training deployment here during the first three weeks in August.
The deployment included a series of history-making firsts between Maryland and Estonia, a partnership that began 23 years ago through the National Guard Bureau’s State Partnership Program, as well as one important first for the Department of Defense.
The Virtual Integrated Training Environment system, which is relatively new to the Air National Guard, deployed outside the continental United States for the first time ever, said Air Force Col. Jori Robinson, 175th Cyberspace Operations Group commander, Maryland Air National Guard.
“The VITE allows us to do real-world training in an environment similar to an A-10C pilot,” said Robinson. “It allows us to conduct certain types of exercises or operations in a safe, clean and open environment.”
The VITE system gave Airmen from the 175th COG and cyber operators from the Estonian Defense Forces and British civilians the opportunity to train together on simulated networks that function like the ones they use in a real world environment. During Operation Baltic Jungle, a simulated training scenario involving an intricate network of fictional countries with escalating political tension, the mission was to attack and defend air operations.
The scenario presented issues resulting from attacks by a group of politically motivated hackers attempting to compromise government networks and the attack also simulated what would happen if the hack affected flying operations on the A-10.
Additionally, this was the first time U.S. fighter aircraft landed and forward air refueled at Kuressaare Airport located in Saaremaa, Estonia as part of Operation Heatwave.
Operation Heatwave involved the inaugural landing of 175th Wing A-10C aircraft for a FARP exercise with the 352nd Special Operations Wing, RAF Mildenhall, United Kingdom, and a MC-130J Commando II, said Air Force Maj. Daniel Griffin, 104th Fighter Squadron FTD project officer, Maryland Air National Guard.
Once refueled at the airport, the A-10C’s participated in an air-to-boat exercise with the Estonian Defense League in the waterways nearby. The exercise simulating a small boat assault on a target, which was also the first of its kind, said Griffin.
The flying training deployment, which was part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, allowed the U.S. to work with allies and partners to develop and improve ready air forces capable of maintaining regional security.
In addition to Estonia and the United Kingdom, 175th Wing Airmen also integrated and trained with other NATO partners from Latvia, Lithuania, Spain, Finland, and Canada to increase readiness and combat posture.
“We need to work together to solve all those issues and work in this complex environment to keep our readiness and combat posture high and build relationships to ensure that we can integrate and work together when we need to,” said Griffin.
Joint terminal attack controllers, combat controllers, and ground forces from participating countries trained with A-10C aircraft in a variety of exercises, including daily A-10C flights to ranges in Estonia and Latvia, complex, multinational exercises like Operation Heatwave, and an austere landing on a closed highway in Jägala, Estonia.
"No other fighters do austere landings,” said Griffin. “It’s unique to the A-10C’s and gives us the ability to project power even farther in certain areas of operation.”
However, with any deployment comes challenges, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Randolph J. Staudenraus, wing commander of the 175th Wing, Maryland Air National Guard. Especially one of this magnitude with over 270 175th Wing Airmen, over 60 other Air Force Airmen, and various partnering countries participating.
The most notable challenge occurred during the A-10C highway landing in Jägala, where one A-10C aircraft landed short of the improvised runway and sustained damage, said Staudenraus. However, 175th Wing maintainers were able to perform necessary repairs on the spot so that it could be flown to Ämari to finish repairs.
“Our maintenance folks can not only do roadway landings, but now we can say we can do roadway repair, which is an amazing feat,” said Staudenraus. “It was pretty brilliant of our folks to overcome that.”
Staudenraus commended 175th Wing Airmen and other U.S. service members for upholding a high standard of professionalism and diligent work ethic, despite the various challenges that presented themselves over the course of the deployment.
Estonia and Maryland have held a long-standing relationship through the State Partnership program since 1993 and with the assistance of the U.S. and NATO, Estonia has been able to better train and educate it’s service members, said Major General Meelis Kiili, Commander of the Estonian Defense League.
“FTD Estonia is not only a simple exercise or training, but it’s an act of solidarity,” said Kiili. “It’s extremely important to show that every square inch of the native territory is going to be protected. It’s not only going to be protected by our own means, but our friends and allies are taking it very seriously.”