Panther Storm: Inside the U.S. Army’s Latest Airborne War Game
The military is practicing assaulting and seizing an enemy airfield or other location.
It’s called “Joint Forcible Entry,” a coordinated, fast-paced air-ground assault to seize an airfield, conduct a large-scale air-assault raid, overwhelm an enemy force or perform high-risk rescue and attack missions.
It is the reason why units like the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division exist, to drop out of fast-moving aircraft armed with weapons, supplies, communications gear and rescue equipment. To prepare for these kinds of massive attacks, the Army and the Air Force recently conducted “Panther Storm,” wherein an Air Force C-130 from Air Mobility Command transited 82nd Airborne paratroopers into a high-threat, high-risk, major combat simulation.
The training event airdropped more than 1,660 personnel and 200,000 pounds of heavy air-dropped vehicles, ammunition and artillery into a practice warzone.
“Our goal was to establish joint integration training between the 19th AW, 317th AW and the Army to exercise a large-force infiltration into a contested area,” Capt. Shawn Riley, 40th Airlift Squadron, and Panther Storm II Mission Planning Cell chief, said in an Air Force report. “Every opportunity to integrate and improve our capability to the joint force is a welcomed one.”
As a large-force infiltration exercise, the Army-Air Force team worked to optimize the C-130s’ cargo capacity and combat delivery systems, as the aircraft is large enough to transport certain tactical vehicles, large weapons systems and airdropped artillery.
“Our biggest challenge was making sure we were fully rigged and ready to perform varying types of airdrops,” said Staff Sgt. Micah Fernandez, 41st AS loadmaster. “With the sheer amount of drops we conducted in just two days, we tested our ability to deliver mobility requirements at the speed and scale required to defeat any adversary.”
While a C-130 would have some limitations when it comes to transporting certain heavy armored vehicles, the cargo aircraft can deliver some armored vehicles, Humvees and mobile Howitzers such as M777s along with large numbers of concentrated troops. This means a larger force could, for instance, conduct extensive reconnaissance or scout missions, large-scale air assault or an airfield seizure.
Part of the exercise may be further developing the C-130s increased ability to transport and drop weapons itself, something which brings previously unprecedented air support to these kinds of forcible-entry air-ground attack. Earlier this year and Air Force Special Operations plane released palletized weapons in three different airdrops using Combat Expendable Platforms to carry munitions stacked up on wooden pallets.
The weapons not only separated properly from the aircraft but also separated from the CEPs to travel along a desired trajectory. The Air Force report described it as “innovative weapons concepts” to bring new attack dimensions to the “high-end” fight.
Arming cargo planes in this way does introduce several new interesting tactical dynamics. Propeller-driven airplanes such as the C-130 have a much-increased ability to operate, take off and land in rugged, uneven or even rocky terrain. Should a piece of dust, debris or small rock hit the airplane, its engines are not in jeopardy of being totally disabled. Therefore, such an attack scenario could, in particular, benefit forward-operating small Special Operations teams detached from larger mechanized support. An armed C-130 could help fortify an AC-130 gunship by bringing air-dropped bombs to the fight.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.