|VFA-115 insignia (Image: Wiki)|
By: Lt.j.g. Nathan Bruschi, USN
TOWNSVILLE, Australia—Over 100 officers and sailors from Strike Fighter Squadron 115 (VFA-115) returned to Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan in April after completing a successful three-week detachment to Townsville, Australia. The Atsugi Japan based F/A-18E Super Hornet squadron flew more than 3,000 nautical miles and where hosted by The No. 4 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
The purpose of the detachment was to participate in the multi-national combined exercise - Black Dagger. The exercise is the final phase of training for Australian student Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (or JTACs). Upon completion of their training, graduates are designated as fully qualified JTACs and receive a permanent “Dagger” call sign signifying their combat-ready status.Once the JTACs complete this final phase of training many go to serve on the front lines fighting the Global War on Terror. They embed with ground combat troops and direct precision air strikes against hostile targets or direct air power to defend units that come under attack.
“It was extremely rewarding to train with foreign military members knowing that our support was going to help them directly as they entered combat operations in the near future” said Lt. Cmdr. Michael Coffey, the VFA-115 Operations Officer.
The Talons of VFA-115 served as the primary supporting unit for the exercise and flew over 140 sorties, dropped more than 250 practice bombs, and shot 6700 rounds of 20mm bullets to support the Australian JTAC training. Also noteworthy was the fact that VFA-115 became the first ever F-18E squadron to expend Australian owned Mk-83, 1000 pound live bombs.
Planning for the detachment began last year during the Squadron’s Western Pacific deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73).Participation in Exercise Black Dagger provided the squadron with critical practice in air-to-ground combat operations during its inter-deployment training cycle. Normally such training in Carrier Air Wing 5 (where VFA-115 is based) is accomplished operating on the U.S. island of Guam.However, this year the Eagles were eager to hone their war fighting skills in a different training range and work with a foreign partner.
“The exercise went very well,” said LT Victor Barger, the Officer-In-Charge for the detachment. “It gave both VFA-115 and the Australian JTACs excellent training opportunities. The fact that we had never done a detachment to Australia meant that there were a lot of hurdles to overcome during the planning phase. The Australians were very professional and willing to help us out with whatever we needed.” The Eagles enjoyed the warm hospitality and friendship provided by the local residents of the nearby city of Townsville. “Townsville was a great place to go visit and the locals are very friendly,” said Lt. Logan Peck, “Also, the training facilities and Air-to-Ground ranges are first rate. We don’t usually have access to ranges this nice.” “I had the time of my life” added Squadron Pilot LT. Ryan Vessichelli. “The flying and CAS training were great…There’s been a lot of talk about doing this again in Australia, and I very much hope to be able to.”
Both Squadron Commanding Officers, WGCDR Stuart Bellingham (RAAF No. 4 Squadron) and CDR. George Perry (VFA-115) agreed: “There were several overlapping training synergies members from both the RAAF and the U.S. Navy enjoyed as a result of this exercise.” “Black Dagger will be a highlight of my time in VFA-115,” Perry noted during a social gathering that marked the completion of the exercise. “We were able to provide the Australian JTAC students with the training necessary to make them combat ready. In turn, the RAAF provided us with outstanding hospitality, a phenomenal range facility to use, and live bombs to drop. But even more importantly than the Navy/RAAF close air support interoperability we’ve been able to refine, are the lasting US/Aussie friendships we’ve been able to make.”
As the Talons of VFA-115 prepare for their next Western Pacific deployment, it is reassuring to citizens of both nations to know the United States Navy and Royal Australian Air Force enjoy such a strong friendship and a close military alliance. VFA-115 feels proud to have continued a tradition of cooperation with our Australian counter parts…A partnership that spans every major war since World War II including the most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Joint US-Australian training such as Exercise Black Dagger and the much larger biennial Exercise Talisman Saber – which will be held later this year – ensure not only the vitality of this alliance but also the peace and stability of the entire Pacific region.