555 FS, Bulgarian allies conclude Thracian Star 21

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  • 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs

More than 150 personnel and eight F-16 Fighting Falcons assigned to the 555th Fighter Squadron, Aviano Air Base, Italy, participated in Thracian Star 21, a Bulgarian air force-led exercise, at Graf Ignatievo Air Base, Bulgaria, July 9-23, 2021.


Thracian Star 21 is an operational and tactical level field training exercise aimed at maximizing interoperability, combat effectiveness and survival awareness while operating in a dynamic high-threat environment.


During the exercise, Airmen from the 555th FS had the opportunity to train alongside Bulgarian air force, Romanian air force, and the Hellenic air force personnel.


Training included offensive and defensive counter-air missions, protection of high value assets, and close air support in a contested environment.


“It’s a mix of air-to-air, air-to-ground, and long range intercept training,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Ryan, 555th FS commander. “During this exercise, the 555th FS had the opportunity to employ a variety of munitions at the ranges in Bulgaria.”


Employing aircraft weapon systems with live ammunition helps service members maintain familiarization with those systems. During Thracian Star 21, the U.S. Air Force F-16s employed 27 inert training munitions, 180 rockets and approximately 7,000 rounds of 20 MM ammunition.


Airmen assigned to the 435th Construction and Training Squadron and 4th Combat Training Squadron, Ramstein Air Base, Germany, also participated in Thracian Star 21.


“We flew close air support with the Bulgarian SU-25s and that was the first time they've used U.S. Joint Terminal Attack Controllers on the range,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Justin Goar, 555th FS F-16 pilot and project officer of Thracian Star 21. “Normally they don't use JTACs, but as a NATO country they could potentially find themselves working with JTACs and integrating with other NATO air-to-ground assets in the future.”


Successful partnering exercises such as Thracian Star 21 result in progressive relationships and leads to tangible, mutual benefits during peacetime and contingencies through actions such as regional security, access and coalition operations.


“Exercises like Thracian Star are critical to the role we play at Aviano as a trusted NATO ally,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. Reid Chlasta, 31st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron officer in charge. “Integrating with our Bulgarian counterparts gives us new perspectives and shows us where and how we can multiply our strengths, especially in functions that directly impact our sortie generation capabilities.”


Bulgaria has established an internal F-16 training program for pilots and maintainers and focused objectives include, but are not limited to: F-16 procurement, operation, and sustainment as well as strengthening the Bulgarian air force’s relationship with regional F-16 users and the U.S. Air Force.


“We are eager to have them and we expect in maybe three or four years for the first F-16s to get here,” said Bulgarian air force Maj. Petar Milkov, L-39 Albatross instructor pilot and Thracian Star 21 project officer. “In previous years, we flew together in joint missions, and I could say that it's very positive for us. I hope that we can participate in more and more exercises.”


This multilateral training opportunity will tested the 555th FS’s ability to rapidly forward deploy, sustain operations, and work in coordination with partners and allies.


“Any time there’s major conflict, what we learned over the years is we’re not going as a single country, we’re going to do it as a coalition of some sort,” said Ryan. “To take advantage of these opportunities is not beneficial for just us, but for all of the participants.”