U.S. military uses Rifle Garfield County Airport for simulated war time operations | AspenTimes.com

U.S. military uses Rifle Garfield County Airport for simulated war time operations

Members of the U.S. Air Force Reserve train in an A-10 Thunderbolt at the Rifle Garfield County Airport on Tuesday evening.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

On a toasty Tuesday in western Garfield County, U.S. Air Force C-130 pilot Major Christopher Acs sought refuge from the high-desert heat in an air conditioned airport hangar normally reserved for idle charter planes sometimes booked by visitors destined for Aspen.

Acs, adorned in a green jumpsuit, said military crews had earlier that Tuesday conducted a simulated war exercise. Using one of the 14 total C-130 military planes to visit Rifle Garfield County Airport over the past week, they aided in dropping 115 members of the 10th Special Forces Group over Buena Vista.

The Colorado Springs-based special forces group were tasked with combating opposition forces simulated by the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Department.

Since Sept. 9, the U.S. military has been conducting war simulations and exercises throughout Colorado and Wyoming.

A Fairchild Republic A-10 'Warthog' Thunderbolt sits at the Rifle Garfield County Airport while the U.S. Air Force Reserve conducts a training operation.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

The scenario: Colorado Springs is the acting Main Operating Base, while on Saturday Francis E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Eagle County Regional Airport and the Rifle airport were established as Forward Operating Bases.

Acs said following months of planning and drawing up make-believe boundaries, just beyond the Roan Plateau was designated enemy territory.

“If we walked outside, I could point out and I could show you the mountain range where the enemy is currently located,” Acs said. “If we were really doing this in real life, the A-10s would launch out of here, and within minutes, they’re ready to put guns on people.”

Meanwhile, the behemoth C-130s, typically more than 97 feet in length, are tasked with rotating through the local airspace. They land, distribute fuel while their engines are still running, then ascend back into airspace.

The U.S. Air Force Reserve utilizes a hanger and the runway for simulation training at the Rifle Garfield County Airport on Tuesday.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Congregated near the expansive entrance of this gargantuan structure were fully uniformed, active duty servicemen based out of Davis-Monthan-Tucson Air Force Base. They sat around portable tables, some using a brief rest and relaxation reprieve smoking vape pens and scrolling through their cellphones.

Nearby, a collection of perched camouflage tents sat empty. Sunbathing out on the tarmac sat two A-10 Warthogs, one of the most durable and punishing pieces of aircraft known to the U.S. military.

That day, Cheyenne was overrun by the enemy, Acs said. In fact, during the pull-out process, crews had to successfully land a C-130 on a desolate highway.

“We’re going to go exercise what we call joint forcible entry where we take all kinds of assets — like A-10 fighters — and we go and we kick the door back in, drop in the 82nd Airborne and we try to take back an airfield,” Acs said.

A member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve walks down the runway at the Rifle Garfield County Airport on Tuesday evening.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Public Affairs Officer with the 22nd Air Force Matthew Bailey said what makes this type of exercise so unique is that it is considered a “numbered Air Force level exercise.” This means several units, both reserve and active duty, are converging together and carrying out these missions when, usually, that doesn’t happen.

“That’s what’s been so cool about what Chris and his team have done is bringing all these different units together who normally don’t come to play, as we say, all at the same time together,” he said. “It makes this a pretty special kind of thing.”

The U.S. Air Force Reserve utilizes a hangar and the runway for simulation training at the Rifle Garfield County Airport on Tuesday.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

One person coming out to play is Major “Pops” O’Brien, a 10-year veteran pilot of the A-10 Warthog. Pops is his call sign — the origins of which he refuses to reveal. It’s more like a “you tell me, I tell you” kind of thing, he said.

O’Brien has been deployed all over the world and is extremely acquainted with just how capable the Warthog is out on mission.

“Anything that involves employing with detailed precision and detailed integration in close proximity to friendly forces,” O’Brien said of the A-10’s talents. “We can carry all the Google-able stuff: A 30-millimeter cannon in the front, we could carry precision-guided munitions that could either be laser guided, or with GPS, we could carry anti-tank missiles.”

“We also have all the armor capabilities — anti-armor, if you will,” he added.

Members of the U.S. Air Force Reserve take part in a radio communications training course at the Rifle Garfield County Airport in Rifle.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Like Cheyenne, however, the Rifle Forward Operating Base is preparing for an enemy takeover. All the aircraft and personnel should have about five and a half hours to fully evacuate the area before it’s too late.

“We’re losing this airfield,” Acs said. “They’re going to overrun us, and we’re going to go home.”

Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or rerku@postindependent.com

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