STAROKOSTIANTYNIV AIR BASE, Ukraine --
The 144th Fighter Wing made history October 6, 2018 when F-15C Eagles landed in Ukraine for the first time, but the men and women participating in Clear Sky 2018 continue to make history as this air-centric exercise brings many firsts for Ukrainians.
In 2011, the U.S. Air Force, leveraging the special relationship between Ukraine and the California Air National Guard, participated in Safe Skies, which was an air defense-focused exercise prior to the EuroCup. That exercise focused on security and safety, but Clear Sky 2018 is a whole different ball game in terms of complexity.
“We have taken massive steps to reach interoperability during this exercise,” said Maj. Gen. Clay Garrison, California Air National Guard commander and Clear Sky 2018 exercise director. “Clear Sky is leaps and bounds more comprehensive and extensive than our last air-centric exercise in 2011.”
Clear Sky 2018 is the first-ever joint multi-national exercise hosted by Ukraine and sponsored by U.S. Forces in Europe. The exercise primarily involves the U.S. Air Force and Ukrainian air force, but also includes seven other partner nations in a collective effort to bring Ukraine in line with NATO standards of interoperability.
“Ukraine asked us to come here and bring this exercise to them,” Garrison said. “NATO is the gold standard for security cooperation across the world because we have rules to ensure a high level of safety and realism while training together. Ukraine knows the only way they can be interoperable with NATO is to train to that standard, which is exactly what we are working towards and accomplishing with this exercise.”
The link that brings everything together for this exercise is U.S. European Command’s State Partnership Program, which has allowed the state of California and Ukraine to work closely together for 25 years. These partnerships help foster relationships and build trust, with an ultimate goal of helping increase readiness and training for both nations.
“Over the past 25 years, California and Ukraine have become extremely cooperative, working functionally together,” said Lt. Col. Robert Swertfager, State Partnership Program director for the California Air National Guard. “This exercise is a very distinct example of that cooperation and strong relationship.”
Clear Sky showcased the strong bond between the U.S. and Ukraine and how far Ukrainian air force components have come since 2014.
“Ukraine is continuing to build their ability to operate with NATO and partner nation forces,” said Maj. Gen. David Baldwin, California National Guard adjutant general. “Doing joint operations is very tough business, but being able to blend forces together and get the synergism for an effect that provides either deterrence or, if necessary, the ability to provide combat power is tough business, and Ukrainians are getting very good at it.”
A key objective of Clear Sky 2018 is to increase interoperability between Ukraine, its regional partners, the U.S. Air Force, and other NATO nations.
“The more we can increase Ukraine’s ability to interoperate with other nations, the more secure the region becomes for both Ukraine and its neighbors,” Swertfager said.
Clear Sky 2018 actually includes several different components: tactical airlift, aeromedical evacuation, pararescue, cyber defense, air sovereignty, and air-to-ground joint fire integration.
“This exercise was a daunting task and has been one of the most challenging deployments we have ever participated in, but keeping the combat capability moving is our sole responsibility,” said Chief Master Sgt. Jose A. Salas, 144th Maintenance Group, California Air National Guard and a member of the exercise planning team.
“The primary goal is to provide combat air power and the men and women participating in this exercise have done just that,” Salas said. “They have taken every challenge and executed flawlessly and in turn received invaluable training during this exercise. The Airmen are proud of what they have accomplished and we are extremely proud of all our Airmen, Ukrainian counterparts, and exercise participants.”
Success was evident throughout Clear Sky, according to the exercise director.
“This is a country that has had their sovereignty violated,” Garrison said. “Ukrainians value the relationship and partnership with the U.S., and we are committed to helping them maintain their territorial sovereignty and their ability to be a free nation. This exercise is a big deal, and it has not always been easy, but getting it done says a lot about our Airmen. I am incredibly proud.”