That Massive Cross-Country USAF Airlift Exercise Was the Largest of Its Kind, Ever

Earlier in December 2017, Americans across the country looked up to see a steady stream of lights in the sky, which, as we were first to explain, was a huge formation of U.S. Air Force transport aircraft plodding their way to the Nevada Test and Training Range, or NTTR. But if the spectacle seemed particularly eye catching this time around, it’s because this particular iteration of what is known as a Joint Forcible Entry Exercise, or JFEX, was the largest one ever.

On the night of Dec. 9-10, 2017, a total of 37 C-17 Globemaster III and 21 C-130 Hercules airlifters took off for Nevada from a dozen bases around the United States as part of the capstone JFEX for the U.S. Air Force Weapons School Integration phase’s Class 17B. The simulated mission was to get into enemy territory and drop U.S. Army paratroopers, who would then establish a presence on the ground. Additional aircraft, including F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, flew support missions against the mock opposing forces. In total, more than 100 planes were involved in the exercise, making the biggest of its kind, according to an official Air Force article.

“It requires a lot of integration with other assets, F-16s, and F-15s for example, to clear the lane for the MAF [Mobility Air Forces transport planes] to get to the objective area, air drop and put in our joint partners, in this case the Army,” U.S. Air Force Major J.R. Wendler, a member of the 16th Airlift Squadron, which flew C-17s from Joint Base Charleston in South Carolina, said after the event. “We flew in with 37 C-17s and 21 C-130s Hercules, pressed into contested air space, and fought our way in.”


JFEXs have historically been large exercises with their size and scope giving students at the U.S. Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base an opportunity to plan and execute a full-size mock airborne operation. The exercises are some of the most demanding and challenging for airlifter crews and instructors judge successes and failures based on how the entire force works together in the air and on the ground. You can find a more detailed look at the ins and outs of these events in an piece The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway previously wrote about Class 14B’s exercise, which occurred in December 2014.

We still don’t know exactly why Class 17B’s mock airborne assault was so large, but it fits with a growing trend throughout the Air Force. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States military has shrunk in overall size and has come to rely even more heavily on its ability to rush personnel and equipment anywhere they might need to go across long distances on short notice.

At the same time, potential real world adversaries, especially near-peer opponents such as Russia and China, have steadily improved and expanded their anti-access and area denial capabilities. Integrated air defense networks feature weapons and sensors with increasingly longer range, making the prospect of inserting an airborne force into hostile territory a more complicated and riskier proposition, which The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway noted in our earlier report on this event, writing:

What’s actually pretty cool is that these folks were lucky enough to  see what America is capable of in a time of war. The United States  ability to project immense power rapidly into remote places is a very  strong deterrent in itself, and a very important capability to use  against an enemy should the need arise. During a major peer-state  conflict, especially one against say China, where the vastness of the  Pacific region can either work against or for you, these types of  tactics will be critical to success. 

With our best aircrews ready to inject major military power virtually anywhere with a dirt strip  long enough to accommodate our C-130s and/or C-17s, it opens up a whole  new set of options for commanders and keeps the enemy from being able to neuter America’s regional combat capability just by barraging master  air bases with ballistic missiles and other long-range weaponry. 

A C-17 Globemaster III touches down on an airstrip within the NTTR during a JFEX in 2016., USAF

The potential for various other types of contingencies that may require American airlifters to fly into dangerous or unknown air space has only grown, as well. The Air Force is increasingly called upon to support networks of remote “contingency operating locations” and “forward operating sites” established as part of far-flung counter-terrorism and security cooperation missions across the globe. This has been particularly pronounced with regards to the U.S.-led campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, as well as operations throughout Africa.

“The reason why we are providing so much support as Air Mobility Command and as the MAF is because we’re preparing for the future which requires readiness,” U.S. Air Force Captain Tom Sallenger, a member of the 15th Airlift Squadron, which also contributed C-17s from Joint Base Charleston for Class 17B’s JFEX, explained. “In planning a contingency operation, we need to have real-life experiences and some of those experiences can only be obtained in a scenario as in-depth as the JFE.”

Beyond this massive exercise, it’s been a big year for Air Mobility Command, or AMC, which oversees the bulk of the Air Force’s airlifters. In July 2017, it relaunched a major international airlift get-together under the nickname Mobility Guardian.

Previously known as the Air Mobility Rodeo, AMC had not held one of these events, due to a combination of budget cuts and operational demands, since 2011. The first iteration of this new premier training exercise included some 3,000 American military personnel, along with approximately 650 foreign participants, many of whom brought their own aircraft.

This event involved scenarios ranging from combat air drops to humanitarian relief missions, and included conventional and special operations forces, underscoring the scope of potential Air Force airlift missions. You can read about the extent of that event in more detail here.


The Air Force has been experimenting with mixing and matching various conventional and special operations forces to form teams that can quickly move into a forward area and begin conduction combat operations, as well. These concepts include Rapid Raptor, which involves a C-17 carrying the personnel and equipment necessary to set up a temporary operating location and sustain a small detachment of four F-22 stealth fighters at a suitable airfield anywhere in the world within 24 hours. This tactic is now being ported over to other fighters as well, including the F-35. 

“Mobility Airmen are often the first to arrive and the last to depart,” U.S. Air Force General Carlton Everhart II, head of AMC, said ahead of the start of Mobility Guardian. “Exercising our capabilities together is critical so when we are called upon, we can deliver quickly and precisely.”  

With growing security concerns throughout East and Southeast Asia, persistent and evolving conflicts in the Middle East, increasing American military involvement in Africa, and a revanchist Russia challenging the United States and its allies in Europe, there are no shortage of potential contingencies the Air Force might have to respond to at a moment’s notice. Airlifters will continue to be essential for supporting those activities.

So, while Class 17B’s JFEX was the largest ever, it might not be for long. We’ll be waiting to see if Class 18A’s exercise in June 2018 is on par with this massive event.

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