By Capt. Jodi L. Kiminski, 148th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published June 19, 2014
Graff Ignatievo Air Force Base, Bulgaria -- Members of the 148th Fighter Wing, Minnesota Air National Guard joined forces with military partners overseas and successfully completed several multi-lateral total force exercises to include Thracian Star, BALTOPS and Saber Strike.
Thracian Star, organized by the Bulgarian Air Force, took place between May 25 and June 4 at Graff Ignatievo Air Force Base, Bulgaria.
Exercise participants include Bulgaria, Hellenic and Romanian Air Forces, along with the Minnesota and Tennessee Air National Guard. The purpose of the training event is to enhance interoperability with the Bulgarian, Hellenic, and Romanian Air Forces to bolster readiness to conduct combined air operations.
"Exercises like this are a fantastic way to come together with our NATO partners and share our ways of operating," said Colonel Jon Safstrom, Vice-Commander, 148th Fighter Wing. "It allows everybody to see the way others operate, we can ask questions and hopefully walk away with a better understanding and a better way forward."
During the exercise, American forces worked directly with their Bulgarian counterparts on ground and in the air. Bulgaria's current fighter fleet is comprised of MiG-29s, the 148th Fighter Wing (FW) sent F-16 Block 50s, and the 134th Air Refueling Wing, Tennessee provides refueling support with a KC-135.
The event is a yearly Bulgarian exercise that has been held since 2005; training will include interception and air combat. Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004. This year the exercise expanded to include neighboring countries as well as the United States.
"Exercises like this give pilots the ability to work on tactics and techniques that they wouldn't get in day-to-day training missions," said General Gorenc, Commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe. "The Bulgarian contribution to air policing has been effective and steady, and it's needed to maintain the sovereignty of NATO airspace."
The 148th FW sent an 8-ship of F-16s along with 120 Airmen, comprised of 20 different career fields to include Operations, Maintenance, Security, Intelligence, Logistics and Communication.
"The experience has been great," said Chief Master Sgt. Paul Poppenberg, 148th Aircraft Maintenance Superintendent. "Being able to work one-on-one with your foreign counterpart, there's a lot of good training going on for both sides. Communication and Language can be a barrier at times, but you work through it."
Following Thracian Star, members of the 148th FW traveled to Amari Air Base, Estonia to participate in joint training exercises BALTOPS and Saber Strike, which run concurrently June 9-20. Saber Strike facilitates cooperation between the United States, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia while BALTOPS is a joint exercise to enhance multinational maritime capabilities and interoperability, and improve involvement in the larger Baltic region Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) strategy.
Saber Strike is a long-standing U.S. Army Europe-led training exercise held annually since 2011. Additional nations participating include Denmark, Finland, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Throughout Saber Strike, the 148th provided close air support with partner nation ground forces.
Twelve countries participated in the 42nd annual BALTOPS exercise: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. U.S. Naval Forces-Europe was the lead component for BALTOPS. The 148th FW provided maritime interdiction and dissimilar air combat training. Approximately 1,300 U.S. servicemembers participated in the exercise.