US and Bulgarian air forces collaborate during Operation Castle Forge

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U.S. Airmen from the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, pose with allies from the Bulgarian Air Force’s 1st Fighter Squadron, Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria, during operation Castle Forge, Oct. 18, 2021. Castle Forge is a U.S. Air Forces Europe-Air Forces Africa-led, joint, multi-national operation. It demonstrates the joint force’s combined ability to respond in times of crisis with a flexible, reassuring presence (Courtesy photo by Bulgarian Air Force).

Published Nov. 10, 2021

By Capt. Andrew Layton

U.S. Air Forces in Europe – Air Forces Africa Public Affairs

GRAF IGNATIEVO AIR BASE, Bulgaria (AFNS) —  

For the last month, the members of the 336th Fighter Squadron4th Fighter WingSeymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, have been hopping from NATO air base to air base across the Black Sea region as part of the U.S. Air Forces Europe-Air Forces Africa-led Operation Castle Forge. 

Along with Larissa Air Base, Greece, and Borcea AB, Romania, the F-15E Strike Eagle crews have staged a series of rapid dispersals to Graf Ignatievo AB. These short-notice forward deployments demonstrate the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment, a strategy that leverages strong teamwork with allies and partners to generate air power anytime, anywhere.

“Besides the benefit of training in different locations with different geography than we get to experience in the U.S., working in Europe with our NATO allies also gives us an opportunity to train for Agile Combat Employment,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Harry Starnes, Castle Forge project officer for the 4th FW. “This means the more we can anticipate our allies’ actions and they can anticipate ours, the more we can learn how each other thinks and the better we’ll fight together to achieve our alliance’s objectives.”

The Strike Eagles flew alongside Bulgarian Air Force MiG-29s from Oct. 18 – 22 during the first leg of Castle Forge before redeploying to Larissa AB, Greece. They returned Nov. 1 for another week of flying in Bulgarian airspace.

“NATO is a multinational alliance and exercises like Castle Forge show that we can work side by side following common standards and ultimately provide a highly capable airpower in this key region,” said Bulgarian Air Force Capt. Jordan Tonev, a MiG-29 pilot with the Bulgarian Air Force’s 1st Fighter Squadron, Graf Ignatievo AB. “From the pilot’s point of view, this is an opportunity to adjust our watches, as we say. This is a highly competitive environment, with high standards and short deadlines, and in such an environment we can forge our capabilities.”

During Castle Forge, the Bulgarian MiG-29 fighters teamed up with the Strike Eagles to perform basic fighter maneuvers, tactical interceptions, and several complex tactical scenarios involving Bulgarian ground based air defense stations and Su-25 aircraft from nearby Bezmer AB.

“As always, the tasks were busy, difficult and undeniably challenging for each participant,” Tonev said. “But that is what we do best.”

In addition to local flying with the Bulgarian Air Force, the Strike Eagles also demonstrated NATO’s ability to form a responsive joint force by supporting protected entries for U.S. 6th Fleet vessels into the Black Sea, including the destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) and the amphibious command ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC 20), both on routine patrol.

The diversity of these mission sets validate the Strike Eagles’ success during Castle Forge.

“ACE is about being quick and not sticking to a single way of operating; logistically, we cannot do this without strong teamwork with our NATO allies,” Starnes said. “This is why any chance we have to work alongside other air forces, like Bulgaria’s, makes us stronger, more ready, and more able to get the job done as an overall alliance.”