Jaded Thunder Exercise Trains Elite Troops to Call in Almost Any Sort of Fire Support

Earlier this year, Marines aviators and their F/A-18C/D Hornets touched down at the unassuming Salina Regional Airport in Kansas, where they joined personnel from other branches of the U.S. military, the National Guard, and foreign troops for a two-week exercise known as Jaded Thunder. Less well publicized was that the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, runs the show, which is one of at least two domestic events – the other known as Bronze Ram – that focus on training to work closely with other special operations, conventional, and allies forces.

In February 2017, JSOC held one of the most recent Jaded Thunder exercises in and around the Kansas Air National Guard’s Smoky Hill Weapons Range, part of the Great Plains Joint Training Center, situated near the town of Salina. Approximately 1,300 American and foreign military personnel took part, including the fliers from Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadron Two Two Four, or VMFA(AW)-224.

The February iteration was “the largest and most successful Jaded Thunder exercise to date,” U.S. Air Force Colonel Tim Smith, commander of the Kansas Air National Guard’s 184th Regional Support Group, which manages the Smoky Hill Range, wrote in a blog post in March 2017. “The event is becoming more frequent due to its popularity with our warfighters as an effective training venue.”

A draft document the command released in October 2017 on FedBizOpps, the federal government’s main contracting website, confirmed that JSOC not only takes part in, but runs both Jaded Thunder and Bronze Ram. There is virtually no other information readily available about the latter, beyond a pair of brief mentions on Facebook about one of the events that occurred at the U.S. Army’s National Training Center, situated in California’s Mojave Desert at Fort Irwin, in 2013.


However, from other publicly available information we know that Jaded Thunder serves as an opportunity for JSOC joint terminal air controllers, the individuals charged with calling in air strikes and other fire support, to practice with a variety of both special operations and conventional forces. It’s a live fire event that also gives the supporting personnel a chance to train as part of a large and complex force, similar to the kind they might find in an actual conflict zone, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria.

Jaded Thunder has occurred routinely since at least 2011 and there are multiple iterations of the exercises each year, likely in part to rotate JSOC personnel through the courses before or after operational deployments. U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) declined to provide any additional details, including the frequency of the exercises, where they occur, or how many personnel have generally taken part.

One of VMFA(AW)-224’s F/A-18D Hornets at Salina Regional Airport during Jaded Thunder 2017, USN

According to the Kansas National Guard, JSOC chose Salina as one of the venues in 2013 after automatic budget cuts in the 2011 Budget Control Act, a process known as sequestration, forced it to seek alternative training locations. Since then, Jaded Thunder events have continued in Kansas, but have also occurred at National Guard facilities in Florida.

The special operators had made use some portion of the sprawling training space in and around Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada on at least one occasion in 2011. At the time, U.S. Air Force personnel gave a public briefing about the exercise to officials and citizens in the nearby city of Pahrump, which you can watch below.

But the sheer diversity of assets that have supported Jaded Thunder in the past four years underscores Colonel Smith’s comments about the expanding popularity of the exercise and the event’s apparent importance. The full scope of special operations aircraft have taken part, including AC-130 gunships, from Air Force Special Operations Command and AH-6 Little Bird light attack helicopters from the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

In addition to the attackers, specialized intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft, such as the Air Force’s MC-12Ws and U-28As, have supported the exercises, according to annual reports from the Kansas National Guard. In the past, CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors have participated to fly ground teams around the fictional battlefields. Unspecified drones, which could include small tactical types, such as the Scan Eagle or RQ-21 Black Jack, or larger, armed examples, such the MQ-1C Gray Eagle and MQ-9 Reaper, have been involved in Jaded Thunder, as well.

In 2013 and 2014 both, the pair of OV-10G+ Broncos, which the Navy borrowed from NASA and heavily modified as part of light attack aircraft experiment, flew missions during Jaded Thunder exercises. In 2015, the aircraft went to Iraq for a limited field trial where they hunted ISIS terrorists, which you can read about in more detail here.

In June 2015, Gawker’s now defunct Phase Zero made a post on Twitter suggesting that Jaded Thunder has also included some of JSOC’s most shadowy elements, including its own internal aviation component, the Aviation Tactics Evaluation Group (AVTEG). This organization oversees covert “black” special operations units such as the Air Force’s 66th Air Operations Squadron and 427th Special Operations Squadron, which I wrote about in detail in a previous feature.

Among other aircraft, observers have linked a number of modified CASA CN-235 surveillance aircraft to the 427th, which plane spotters often track using online software flying at various locations in the United States. We at The War Zone took an in depth look into these particular planes after one appeared in the skies near Seattle in August 2017 for a still mysterious training mission. There is substantial evidence that JSOC personnel, and private contractors supporting their operations, fly or have flown a variety of other discreet reconnaissance aircraft with civilian style paint schemes, including twin engine Beechcraft King Airs and four engine de Havilland DHC-7s.

The special operations components are just a part of the aerial armada that takes part in Jaded Thunder, though. As already mentioned, Marine Corps units have regularly brought their F/A-18C/D Hornets to the exercise. Active and Reserve Air Force A-10 Warthog squadrons similarly make routine appearances and B-1 bombers have flown missions during the event at least once. 

The U.S. Navy, Marines, and Army National Guard in various states have sent various types of attack, scout, transport helicopters – including UH-60 Black Hawks and HH-60 Seahawks, OH-58D Kiowa Warriors, and AH-64 Apaches – to help shuttle personnel around and support the training events, too. During Jaded Thunder 14-2, the second iteration in 2014, participating aircraft of all types flew more than 230 sorties and JTACs on the ground were able to call in almost 550 mock support requests.

And on the ground, Army artillery units have brought M109 155mm self-propelled howitzers on at least two occasions to provide a different kind of fire support. The Kansas National Guard says that Jaded Thunder 2013 was actually the first time ranges near Salina had hosted any live-fire artillery training since World War II.

All of this makes perfect sense, of course. Though its activities are generally classified, JSOC relies heavily on conventional forces, including reservists and national guardsmen, to conduct its operations in the field. There are often simply not enough special operations assets to meet the demand for airlift and other transportation, as well as fire support, during regular and often short-notice missions.

On top of that, special operations units do not include long-range artillery or the breadth of strike aircraft available in the conventional force, which is often the best option for attacking particular targets. It is essential that JSOC’s operators know how to work seamlessly with their conventional counterparts.

A pair of US Army OH-58D Kiowa Warriors sit at Avon Park Air Force Range in Florida during a Jaded Thunder exercise in 2011., US Army

In Iraq and Syria, this type of cooperation has already been particularly visible, with conventional howitzer and rocket artillery units deploying to remote forward locations to support local forces conducting missions in close coordination with American and other allied special operators.

In 2015, The Washington Post reported that special operations forces in Afghanistan had been working closely with Army elements armed with the 227mm High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, to conduct targeted strikes against particular terrorists. The truck-mounted launcher and its GPS-guided rockets, which have a range of more than 40 miles, has continually proven to be a valuable and easily deployable tool, something we at The War Zone have discussed numerous times in the past.

During the 2013 and 2015 iterations of the Air Force Special Operations Command’s own capstone exercise, Emerald Warrior, an MC-130 special operations transport plane practiced dropping off a HIMARS launcher as part of a simulated raid. This illustrated the ability of both conventional and special operations elements to try and get the weapon into position quickly to respond to actionable intelligence about fleeting, time-sensitive targets, such as meetings between terrorist leaders.

The U.S. military has recently begun to signal that the fighting in Iraq and Syria against ISIS is beginning to slow. On Nov. 30, 2017, Combined Joint Task Force-Operational Inherent Resolve, the main American task force leading the effort, announced that Marine artillery troops were on their way home from Syria after having supported the intense campaign to liberate the city of Raqqa.

But at the same time, special operations-led activities in Afghanistan appear to be ramping up. There similarly expanding counter-terrorism campaigns in both Somalia

and Yemen, among other places, too.

As such, Jaded Thunder – and likely whatever the Bronze Ram training involves – looks set to continue to be an important component of JSOC’s training regimen.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com