Remembering When The 366th Wing Was An Experimental Rapid Response 'Air Force In A Box'
As the 'Gunfighters' celebrate their 75th anniversary, we look back to when the wing became a grand experiment in emergency airpower projection.
The storied 366th Fighter Wing, better known as the 'Gunfighters,' which calls Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho home is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Today, the base houses two active F-15E Strike Eagle squadrons and an F-15SG unit that trains Singaporean crews, but over the decades it has taken on many forms. Maybe the most interesting of which began in the 1990s when the wing transformed into a composite 'air intervention' force replete with fighters, tankers, and bombers, all meant to quickly deploy together during a crisis. The concept was very ambitious and was intended to confront the complex challenges of a post-Cold War world, but it turned out to be a bit more challenging to implement and sustain than originally thought.
The air intervention wing concept was brought to life in 1991 by then Air Force Chief of Staff Merill McPeak. McPeak saw his role as transformational, turning America's flying service from a largely monolithic force designed to counter the Soviet Union to a far more flexible and nimble one. For some, the idea of creating a SWAT team-like composite air wing was a gleaming illustration of how America was settling into its role as the world's sole superpower and the globe's heavily-armed policeman of sorts.
McPeak's vision was to organize wings not based on a type of aircraft, but on a general mission-set. This meant that if the mission was to go in and take on the enemy with kinetic firepower, the wing should have all the primary aircraft it needed to accomplish that mission with minimal external support.
By basing all these disparate aircraft together, it also meant that they could constantly train as an integrated combat unit. Traditionally, such training was reserved for a small handful of large force exercises that a normal wing made up of one or maybe two types of aircraft would participate in each year. Under the new wing organization, this type of training could occur daily.
Additionally, an air intervention wing would need to be able to mobilize on short notice and provide a full package of capabilities to combatant commanders pretty much anywhere in the world.
The 366th Wing at Mountain Home AFB became the flying guinea pig for this new wing organization. The base had been home to EF-111 Ravens—an electronic warfare aircraft based of the F-111 Aardvark that was highly valued during Operation Desert Storm—prior to the change. By early 1992, the Ravens were relocated to Cannon AFB in New Mexico and Mountain Home AFB's aircraft inventory was in the process of ballooning.
The air intervention configured wing would include single squadrons of Block 52 F-16Cs, F-15Cs, F-15Es, and B-52Gs. The last and probably the most critical piece of this force-mix equation was tankers. All these combat jets would need a lot of fuel during operations and even just to ferry them to distant locales on short notice. With this in mind, a KC-135R squadron was integrated directly into the wing as well.
The idea was that the wing could work as a highly-trained and deeply integrated tactical air power team, with F-15Cs providing counter-air duty, F-15E's executing the all-weather precision strike mission set, and B-52Gs bringing their massive volume of firepower to bear and the ability to fire the AGM-142 Have Nap missile (aka Popeye) for standoff precision attacks. The F-16Cs would kick down the door as Wild Weasels, suppressing enemy ground threats with their AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles. They would also work as light attackers, specifically during daytime operations. KC-135R tankers would provide the gas for everyone. There was also quite a bit over overlap mission-wise for the fighters, especially in the air-to-air realm. It truly was an 'air force in a box' concept.
By 1996, the B-52G bombers would be traded out for B-1Bs, which had lost their nuclear strike mission and were in the process of becoming the USAF's hardest-hitting dedicated conventional strike platform. Other non-flying units were also added, like an air control squadron that brought mobile radar and command and control capabilities to the composite force.
Later in the decade, the USAF still saw promise in the concept but wanted to better refine how it could be operationally employed. The establishment of the Air Expeditionary Force Battlelab (AEFB) was seen as a major step in getting the most out of the wing and to help better replicate it in the future. Also, part of AEFB's mission was working to pre-plan deployments to likely theatres so that the wing could more easily and seamlessly respond to a crisis on short notice.
Although the logic behind this concept was fairly clear, there certainly were drawbacks and roadblocks to executing it as originally envisioned. First off, basing five different aircraft types in operational units on a single base was grossly expensive. Each aircraft had its own infrastructure and logistical needs and with just one squadron of each type on strength, economies of scale were nowhere to be found.
After years of real-world evidence, it became clear that replicating the intervention wing concept multiple times over would be near fiscally impossible in an era of declining force structure and budgets. The post-Cold War 'peace dividend' was going to be realized one way or another, and pumping huge sums of money into composite wings seemed to many like a lavish luxury with questionable utility.
McPeak was fully aware of the fiscal demands his composite wings would place on the USAF's budget, stating the following at an Air Force symposium in 1991:
"The reason we haven't done such a thing [formed composite wings] over the years is that we have been afraid of costs... It's expensive, especially if you have to create intermediate-level maintenance organizations on each base where you have a composite wing so organized."
He had hoped that new innovations in maintenance and fleet reliability, along with a new multi-tier maintenance plan would help offset some of those costs, but those savings seemed to be illusive in retrospect.
McPeak also realized that 'monolithic' wing structures of the past, where multiple squadrons of the same aircraft were bedded-down at the same base, would still have a place in the USAF, but he clearly intended to replicate his intervention wing concept many times over:
"We might still want to have some wings--especially CONUS wings with the principal mission of overseas reinforcement--to be organized in a monolithic form, because of the economies of scale that are possible in that kind of organization.
So in the end, I think, we will need a balance, a mixed [force] structure of monolithic and composite wings--some composite wings, mostly forward deployed, and some monolithic wings that might be stationed more to the rear."
Additionally, demands of the Air Force when it came to deployments abroad, such as those to enforce the no-fly-zones over Iraq and to provide capabilities to NATO for operations around Bosnia, as well as domestic and international training events, meant that the wing's tenant units had to peel off for prolonged periods of time. This worked to weaken the whole concept of constantly training together and being ready to deploy abroad as a complete force on short notice.
Following the attacks on 9/11 and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, as well as the broader Global War on Terrorism, and all the deployment demands that went along with it, the intervention wing seemed less relevant and executable than ever before and the concept began to unwind.
In 2002, the 366th Wing lost the 34th Bomb Squadron and its B-1B bombers and the 22nd Air Refueling Squadron and its KC-135 tankers as part of a grand asset consolidation plan. As a result, the wing was redesignated as a Fighter Wing.
The 2005 Base Realignment And Closure act was the final nail in the coffin for Mountain Home's air intervention wing experiment. All but one of the base's aircraft types would be sent packing—the F-15E Strike Eagle. The last F-16 left the base in 2007 ending what was without a doubt an interesting and transitional era in USAF history.
The composite wing concept, which was always a controversial idea, was also employed to varying degrees at Pope and Moody Air Force Bases, but not with leading-edge air combat punch like Mountain Home possessed during the nearly decade and a half period of time when the air intervention wing concept was in full swing.
Although it didn't stick in the long-run, many lessons were learned from the grand experiment. The success of the Air Force's Air Expeditionary Wings overseas, which draw in a multitude of different aircraft types from different units based around the globe for collective combat operations, owe a lot to the modern composite air wing concept that was tested at Mountain Home AFB in the decade and a half following the end of the Cold War.
Today, Mountain Home Air Force Base is truly a world-renowned hub of multi-role heavy fighter excellence, with its trio of Strike Eagle units filling the skies with thunder on a daily basis.
The size of the base and its close proximity to high-quality ranges means that it also receives regular visitors. Everything from F-35As to Indian Su-30MKIs have used the base in recent years, often times to spin-up before taking part in large exercises like Red Flag or for simulating high-tempo deployments abroad.
Also, the base is still a testing ground for new wing structures. Just recently, it was announced that the 366th Fighter Wing would be the first to implement the Air Force's new streamlined wing management structure concept. You can read more about this initiative here.
Still, it must have been pretty awesome to see McPeak's 'SWAT team of the skies' dispersed across the base's miles-long apron. What I have heard from crews that flew as part of team Gunfighter during this unique period of time is generally positive, with many noting that when the concept worked it really worked and the quality of daily training was remarkable.
One F-15E weapons system officer told me that flying at Mountain Home back then was like "being at a mini Red Flag every single day." But he also noted that it was a grossly complex and expensive affair that had limited potential to become standard Air Force-wide.
Regardless, the base and its air combat cadre are still going strong, and the F-15E brings a bit of every mission—aside from refueling—to the table that the composite wing once offered.
Happy 75th birthday Gunfighters!
Author's note: A very special thanks to the Mountain Home AFB Public Affairs team who took the time to find and scan the old photos you see in this article.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com