As Air Force pilots navigate hostile skies at break-neck speeds overseas, they must rely on their past experiences and home station training to fight opposing forces and survive.
The amount and type of training pilots receive can literally mean life or death.
Yet for F-16CM Fighting Falcon pilots stationed at Shaw Air Force Base, home station training space is restricted to an area over the Atlantic Ocean and an approximately 40-mile by 40-mile piece of land in rural Georgia.
The Georgia airspace, known as the Bulldog Military Operations Area or "Bulldog," is the closest and largest over-land operating area available for Shaw's Wild Weasel pilots, said Maj. Adam Thornton, 55th Fighter Squadron director of operations. This area is vital because it is collocated with several fixed and mobile radio emitters, which simulate threats so pilots can practice their primary mission tactics.
Expanding their knowledge of strategies to suppress enemy air defenses, pilots assigned to the 20th Fighter Wing train at the airspace almost daily, sometimes multiple times per day.
Art Byers, 20th Operation Support Squadron airspace manager, said pilots assigned to McEntire Joint National Guard Base, also use the space regularly, while pilots from other military installations, such as Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, and Eglin AFB, Florida, utilize the area less often.
However, the size of Bulldog limits the training pilots can experience; it can be traversed by an F-16 in less than 8 minutes.
"Improving the Bulldog Airspace, both from an electronic combat range point of view as well as improving the lateral and vertical confines of that air space, is in the best interest of our pilots, it's in the best interest of SEAD capabilities, (and) it's in the best interest of our country as far as a national defense and power projection capability," said Thornton.
The tactics pilots must know to prepare for real-world SEAD missions require an airspace nearly double the size of Bulldog.
"The adversaries we train to fight against are developing better technology that can detect us at farther ranges, that can shoot us at farther ranges and because of that, we have to adapt our tactics to counteract that threat," said Thornton. "Those tactics require range. I can't use the same confined airspace that we've used the last 20 to 30 years because the threat is different. The threat is deadlier, it can target more of my aircraft at one time, it can shoot me from farther away and it can shoot me without me knowing. Based on that threat, I have to adapt."
To properly hone their skills, Shaw pilots must travel to larger airspaces, such as those in Nevada and Alaska. Formal training is conducted at sites like these for several weeks at a time, multiple times per year.
Reducing unnecessary separations from their families for training purposes may directly impact a pilot's decision to remain in the Air Force because it improves their quality of life and service, which Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said are two of his and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson's focuses in tackling pilot shortages.
During a State of the Air Force Address in November, Wilson stated the Air Force had a shortage of approximately 2,000 pilots.
Yet, the congested skies of Georgia are not making an expansion of Bulldog easy. The area is located between major commercial airports with heavy traffic.
"The skies on the east coast are only getting more crowded, which is why it's important that we have pieces of this east coast pie that are carved out for us specifically to do the training that we need to do," said Thornton.
By becoming proficient at stateside training, pilots convert learned skills into second nature, allowing them to focus their attention on the dynamic environment and challenges presented by adversaries while deployed.
"If we're limited (on) what we can train against, when we deploy and I send the guys downrange, they're not going to have the skills they need to (fight) against the advanced threats that are out there," said Thornton. "In short, by not having the airspace and the ranges to train against an advanced threat, the survivability of our aircraft and my pilots goes down.
"I can't simulate the threat I want to train against in the limited space I'm provided in Bulldog. If we widen those ranges out, then I'm able to potentially relocate some of those emitters to a location where now we're able to train against a near-peer adversary."
As 20th FW leaders reach out to external agencies in hopes of finding a way to expand the Bulldog airspace, the wing's pilots refuse to lose.
"If we had to do (SEAD) for real against the adversaries that we are supposed to train against, we would not be prepared based on the (training) limitations we have," said Capt. Gregory Sabol, 55th FS F-16 pilot. "I am confident we would go out and win based on fighter pilot mentality. We would be able to go and win because that's who we are, that's what we've been trained to do and that's why we're here."
Despite the challenges Airmen face, many continue to strive for improvement and innovation with one thought in mind.
"The mission of the Air Force is to fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace," said Sabol. "At Shaw AFB, everyone here exists for someone to go fly, fight and win. We all play a role in that and if we lose focus of that that effects what we do at the highest level. Our entire focus should boil down to 'Is this helping us fly, fight and win?'"